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MnDOT to raise some, not all speed limits on Hastings highways

Speed limits along Highway 61 through Hastings are currently posted at 30 mph. This spring, they're expected to change to 35 mph, according to MnDOT. (Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx)

The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently announced to Hastings city staff that it will change some of the state highway speed limits in and around Hastings. The decision comes after a roughly year-long effort on the part of the city and some residents to stop the speed limit increase, at least in some sections of the highways.

This spring, MnDOT is expected to raise the speed limit from 45 mph to 55 mph on Highway 55 from General Sieben Drive to Jacob Avenue; from 30 mph to 35 mph on Highway 61 from Highway 316 to the Mississippi River bridge; from 55 mph to 60 mph on Highway 61 south of Hastings city limits; from 35 mph to 40 mph on Highway 316 from Highway 61 to just north of Tuttle Drive; and from 55 mph to 60 mph on Highway 316 south of city limits. A section of Highway 55 between Vermillion and Prairie streets, which came under debate last year, will remain at its current 35-mph posted speed limit.

City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee said that the changes attempt to balance the state's needs with the city council's concerns.

"We have revised the speed limits to address the Hasting City Council's concerns as much as possible, while still following the Traffic Engineering Manual and commonly accepted speed zoning practices," she wrote in an email.

Hastings City Councilman Joe Balsanek, who has been a vocal opponent of the increases since they were first announced, said this week that he's happy that MnDOT listened to the city's concerns, but that the changes they are making are "very upsetting to me."

Speed limit discussions began locally in the fall of 2015, when MnDOT initially notified the city that it planned to raise speed limits on state highways within Hastings.

The changes were spurred by a study mandated by the Minnesota Legislature. That study indicated to MnDOT staff that speed limits here should be raised in order to better match average actual speeds. Hastings residents and the City Council, however, balked at the idea, especially when it came to the eastern end of Highway 55, where MnDOT originally wanted to increase speed limits to 40 mph. There, opponents noted, the road bisects a popular city park (Roadside Park) and is also adjacent to Hastings Middle School. Increasing the speed limit there, they said, would create more of a safety risk than already exists.

Ultimately, MnDOT agreed to keep that section the same, and for that, Balsanek said he's happy.

"I'm very pleased at that," he said. "But I am upset about the Vermillion Street Corridor, having that raised."

Study: most driving over 30 mph

The 2015 study showed that most drivers on Highway 61 are travelling at 37-40 mph, despite the 30-mph posted speed limit. And, MnDOT representative Chad Erickson told City Council that same year, when it comes to safety, crash rates are at their lowest when posted speed limits match the average speed.

One of MnDOT's primary goals is to move traffic smoothly and safely along its roads. In some cases, that means adjusting speed limits where observed speeds don't match posted speed limits and the number of incidents isn't high enough to raise any red flags.

But crashes in the corridor are already a problem, according to Balsanek. He said that the city has upwards of 60 crashes each year on Vermillion Street, especially at 10th and 15th streets and Highway 55.

"I don't know what MnDOT's bar is set at, but I just don't think that's normal, to have that amount of traffic incidents," Balsanek said. "... I think there is more than a fair amount of incidents."

Mesko Lee provided MnDOT's summary regarding the findings for Highway 61, which stated: "While the Council's concerns about TH 61 are understood, MnDOT cannot retain the 30-mph limit and meet our obligation to provide a safe and reasonable speed limit for this road design and surrounding environment."

Balsanek's concern also extended to the section of Highway 55 on the city's west edge. He pointed to the incoming Allina Clinic and what he expects to be a substantial increase in traffic to that area.

"I just think that they would have been better to wait and get the clinic done and then look at safety," he said.

Balsanek is less worried about the rural speed limit increases from 55 mph to 60 mph, a shift that is happening all around the state. The council and residents have previously indicated concern over raising speed limits at Highway 316 and Tuttle Drive, as that intersection can already be difficult to navigate at peak traffic times. MnDOT also explained that decision to the city.

"The speed study indicated that the 35-mph zone between TH 61 and 645-feet north of Tuttle Drive should be increased to 45 mph. "The Council desired that the 35-mph zone remain. However, upon review of the data, the road design, and the surrounding environment, a 40-mph limit is the lowest that can be set and still meet MnDOT's obligations to the public."

Mesko Lee said she feels that, although the council was not unilaterally pleased with the final result, MnDOT did listen to the city's concerns and were willing to exhibit flexibility. 

"Ultimately, we were pleased with how it played itself out," she said.

MnDOT is expected to post new speed limit signs sometime this spring.

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