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Speed study under way by MnDOT on 61

An effort to reduce the speed limit on U.S. Highway 61 near the Hastings bridge may be gaining some momentum.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials alerted State Representative Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, by e-mail late last week that a new study is under way. Results will be made public when the study is completed.

A fatal crash just north of the Hastings bridge May 3 brought the issue to the forefront again. It had been a hot topic two years ago, too, when fatal crashes claimed more lives. In all, six lives have been lost on Highway 61 between U.S. Highway 10 and the bridge since 2005.

"The speed limit should not be 60," McNamara said. "There's a serious issue here. It's way too fast with all that merging going on. I'm hoping MnDOT comes back and says they'll lower the speed limit now."

Several residents have written MnDOT, including some going back to 2007, and the Hastings City Council is also getting involved in the issue. At its meeting Monday, the council plans to adopt a resolution asking for changes to the speed limit.

"I really do feel that we've got some major issues here that we have to address," Council Member Joe Balsanek said. "Waiting until after the bridge is open to start doing a study? That's four years down the line. We could have another four, five, six deaths. That's just inexcusable."

Balsanek is being encouraged by his constituents to keep up his work on this.

"I'm hoping the wheels (at MnDOT) are turning," Balsanek said. "I don't want to make a pest of myself in terms of contacting these people, but I have about 10 e-mails from people who said to me, yes, this needs to happen."

McNamara doesn't want to wait until after the new bridge is built to study this, either.

"Hopefully, MnDOT will look at it and react real quick," he said. "That's my hope, anyway."

Slowing down

Balsanek compared Hastings to Red Wing in terms of speed limits on Highway 61, and said he strongly favors the Red Wing approach.

Drivers are taken from 65 to 55 to 40 to 30 as they approach the city.

As drivers travel southbound on Highway 61 toward Hastings, they are at 65 miles per hour until they reach the area of the River Oaks Golf Course. Speed limits there drop to 60. The next time there is a reduction in speed is at the base of the bridge. That must change, Balsanek said.

He'd like to see the speed limit drop to 55 or 50 once traffic hits the stop light at Manning Avenue. Between Manning and Highway 10, he said, a number of businesses generate significant traffic, and a new housing development does the same.

Balsanek is proposing the speed limit be further reduced once drivers pass the Highway 10 intersection. He'd like to see it reduced to 40 miles per hour as drivers come down the hill.

That, and the signs now in place encouraging drivers to use both lanes and take turns at the merge, would help discourage the road rage that often takes place there.

"So many times, I've seen people having road rage in the southbound lanes where they just don't want to let somebody in," Balsanek said.

Balsanek would also like to see portable barriers separating the northbound and southbound lanes installed at least temporarily.

"We've got them," he said. "The state owns them. We should be able to get barriers installed right now. It's not rocket science to put those up."

The new bridge

If changes aren't made now, Balsanek fears the problem could just get worse with the construction of the new bridge.

"You're going to have a fair amount of gawking as they are driving through, looking at the new bridge going up," he said. "Inadvertently, there's going to be more crashes there. That's just a gut feeling. I'm not a traffic expert, but with the major construction that will be there, that should precipitate slowing people down as well."