— The Kandiyohi County Commissioners on Wednesday had a morning filled with public works updates and a chance to take a look at, and get hands-on, with new equipment at the board's meeting conducted at the Public Works Department garage.
While in years past, the commissioners during one of their "road and bridge meetings" would all pile in a van to tour the finished construction projects and perhaps visit the sites of upcoming projects, this year they toured them by air, thanks to a new drone Public Works purchased.
"We are going to try it and see how it goes," said Public Works Director Mel Odens.
The commissioners viewed drone footage of 12 different completed and upcoming projects from across the county. This included the projects done in Prinsburg, County Road 4 around Lake Lillian, County Road 119 south of Lake Wakanda, County Road 41 and County Road 9 in Willmar and County Road 2 in Hawick. This year the Public Works Department's work has included 8.2 miles of grading, 17 miles of paving and 64 miles of maintenance on the county's road network.
"Which is $14.3 million in 2022," Odens said.
About a month ago, Pubic Works purchased a brand new drone for about $4,500. The drone includes a camera capable of recording in 6K resolution, multiple sensors and various ways of flying routes including by GPS coordinates or free hand. The drone can fly up to 45 miles per hour and handle winds up to 35 miles per hour.
Two staff member have been trained and certified to fly the drone. Odens said the county would usually pay an outside contractor between $1,000 and $1,500 for a single drone flight. Public Works has already flown at least 20 flights with its new drone.
"It pays for itself pretty quick," said Jeremy Pfeifer, assistant county engineer, who is one of the two certified to fly the drone.
Odens also updated the commissioners on a grant opportunity he plans to pursue for the County Road 55 highway-rail grade separation project. The project, which has been separated into three phases and won't be completed until 2024, would re-establish the road network at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 23 and Kandiyohi County Roads 5/15 and 55 with highway ramps, a bridge over the railroad tracks and some realignment of the county roads. Both the county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are playing a part in the project.
Odens had hoped to get $3.9 million in state bonding funds for the $8 million to $9 million project, to join the county's share of the project that is being funded through the 2017 local option sales tax. However, due to the lack of an approved bill this year, the county had to look for other funding sources.
The federal Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant Program has more than $114 million for fiscal year 2022 to help fund projects that improve highway — rail grade crossings or pathway — rail grade crossings, which could include the elimination of an at-grade crossing. The Kandiyohi County project looks to do that with the overpass bridge over the rail tracks. The grant application also looks at whether the project improves access and economic strength.
"There has been a lot of economic activity out here, a lot," Odens said, pointing to the major projects in the Willmar Industrial Park.
The County Board and Odens also discussed a letter they had received from the St. Johns Township Board that shared concerns about the safety of the Minnesota Highway 40 intersections with County Roads 1 and 7. Between July and August there were two fatal crashes at the County Road 7 and Highway 40 intersection.
"It is a very sad situation," Odens said.
While there are some safety enhancements that can be made to the stop signs at the intersection, such as installing larger signs, putting up flags or installing LED flashers, all improvements will need to be approved by MnDOT. Odens said he has met with MnDOT, the State Patrol and the county sheriff's office on the incidents and that the State Patrol will be completing its investigation in early October. He said it would probably be best to wait to make any changes until after the State Patrol uncovers what caused the crashes.
The commissioners were able to get out of the meeting room and see some of the new equipment Public Works has purchased over the last year, including a new excavator, a pavement sweeper and ditch mower. The commissioners popped the hood open on the sweeper, investigated the ditch mower closely and Commissioner Rollie Nissen even got into the cab of the excavator and moved some dirt around.
Odens said having these pieces of equipment allow Public Works crews the opportunity to do more projects and maintenance in-house, instead of having to contract out. It can also help with employee retention because it gives staff a chance to do different things and use various equipment.
"We've got a lot of skilled labor here," Odens said. "It is called operational efficiency that we can do here and not necessarily hire it out."