Rep. Jurgens moves bill to stop speed changes on Hwy. 316

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Rep. Tony Jurgens (R-Cottage Grove) has started moving a bill through the Minnesota House of Representatives that would force the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to hold off on its proposed speed limit increase on Highway 316 in Hastings.

The bill he introduced is a short one — just one page — that puts a moratorium on adjusting the speed limit and demands a legislative report and also requires MnDOT to hold at least two hearings in Hastings regarding the speed limit adjustments.

Jurgens, in an interview, said he heard from residents along Highway 316 during his campaign who are concerned about safety even with the current 35-mph speed limit. They are concerned about not only the speed of traffic, but also the lack of turn lanes, crosswalks and adequate shoulders for pedestrians.

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

Jurgens said he experienced the issues himself, when he was doorknocking in the area last year. He had to walk in the ditch alongside the road, because there is no shoulder or sidewalk.

"I saw firsthand the lack of safety in that area," he said.

Now, MnDOT plans to increase speeds between Vermillion Street and Tuttle Drive from 35 mph to 40 mph, a change that many residents fear will make existing safety concerns worse. MnDOT originally planned to increase speeds in the area to 45 mph, but opted for the 40 mph limit in response to the city's concerns over safety issues, a move Jurgens said he appreciated.

"In working with the city they did compromise," he said.

Still, he feels it's not enough. About two weeks ago, Jurgens met with MnDOT and requested they delay the changes, but his effort didn't produce any change.

"They indicated that there were no options at this point," Jurgens said.

A resurfacing project is scheduled for the road in 2021, and MnDOT said there may be options to revisit the issue then. Jurgens, however, didn't feel that was an adequate solution. So he wrote House File 2264 in an attempt to press pause on the changes.

"This, I felt, was the only option I had," he said.

The bill was heard March 8 by the Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee, where it was received with support.

"I support your bill and I think this is important that we get some leadership from the Minnesota Department of Transportation," said Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-New Brighton) during the hearing. "They need to design the roads so people drive the speed limits, not go out there and do speed counts and say, people are driving fast, therefore let's raise the speed limits."

Bernardy said the same issue happened in her own community, but residents there never got a chance to weigh in. She said she agreed that delaying the changes and reevaluating through the resurfacing project would be a good strategy, and that interim strategies to slow traffic could be implemented.

"This is serious stuff and this is people's lives, and I'm totally supportive of it and I'd love to collaborate with you on ways in which we can change how MnDOT does business in speed studies," she said.

Three Hastings residents who live along the affected road gave testimony at the hearing. Owen Hecht explained how the 35-mph limit came to be in the first place. His wife was struck in their yard while mowing the lawn back in 1994, he said. A car had gone off the road two houses away, came up over their neighbor's driveway and hit her.

"After that, our Representative, Jerry Dempsy, and our Senator, Steve Murphy, took the bull by the horns and they went and proposed this ... (MnDOT) finally relented and decided we should have a 35-mile-per-hour speed limit."

Across the street, Dave Rother said his father witnessed the incident Hecht noted. He also pointed out that the asphalt ends at the white line and that there is no place for bicycles or pedestrians. He said he's witnessed a child struck by a pickup, another vehicle that ended up in Hecht's front yard, and his own car totaled when another driver pulled out in front of him.

"I wasn't going faster than 35, but he still totaled my car," Rother said.

He also noted the road's condition, and that while rural 316 was rebuilt back in 2006, the section within Hastings city limits was left alone. Now, he said, he's concerned that an increase in speed on an already worn road would make it even more dangerous.

Another neighbor, Susan Tate, told the committee of a few near misses in her front yard, one where a vehicle crashed into their yard and smashed one of their vehicles, and another where a driver was rear-ended as a friend was trying to pull into her driveway. Plus, she added, it already takes her five to 10 minutes just to pull out of her driveway some mornings.

"I just don't think it's a good idea to up it to 40," she said.

Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks also submitted a letter to the committee on behalf of the Hastings City Council. It stated that the council appreciates MnDOT's efforts to compromise, but reiterated its concerns about safety.

"Increasing the speed with no other safety or functional improvements causes concern about the safety of the motorized and pedestrian users of this section," the letter read, in part. "On behalf of the Hasting City Council, we would welcome any assistance on reevaluating the proposed speed increase on this section of roadway."

Three Hastings councilmembers attended the hearing as well, but did not speak.

Jennifer Witt, a Hastings resident and policy analyst for MnDOT Government Affairs, responded to the bill on behalf of MnDOT.

"MnDOT has concerns with this bill," Witt said. "Just by raising speed limits does not necessarily mean that the road is less safe. Generally, when speed limits are raised, it's because a speed study has been done and it is to create a safer environment for the road and the drivers on it."

She said speed studies, including the one done prior to the current speed limit proposal, consider road type, condition, location, access, existing traffic controls, crash history, landscape, shoulders and more. They also monitor the road to see how people are driving.

Witt said MnDOT wants to work with legislators on the issue.

The committee approved the bill and moved it to the Transportation Finance Committee. In order for the moratorium to take effect, the bill would have to be approved on the House floor, as well as a companion bill in the Minnesota Senate (SF 2036, which Sen. Dan Schoen has introduced; it has been referred to the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee) and then signed by the governor. Jurgens said he's not sure how long his bill might take to move through the process, but timing is important, as MnDOT planned to install new speed limit signs this spring.

"We need to keep things moving on our end," he said.