OWATONNA — Despite advocacy from the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism to restore and keep in place the recently discontinued traffic signals at the intersection of Oak Avenue and Vine Street, the Steele County engineer has confirmed that the plan to remove the lights will move forward as planned — though perhaps a little later than scheduled.
“‘Delay’ is maybe an ambiguous word,” said Greg Ilkka. “But we are delaying it until the three-lane striping for Oak Avenue is complete. From there we can evaluate how it operates under those conditions.”
Sometime mid-October, Ilkka said that the highway department will be restriping Oak Avenue, which is also County Highway 45 and therefore comes under the jurisdiction of the county rather than the City of Owatonna, The restriping will change the roadway from a four-lane undivided set-up down to three lanes. The current four-lanes do not provide any designated turn lanes for motorists looking to make a left-hand turn.
“It’s what is known as a road diet,” Ilkka said. “The idea behind the three-lanes is that it will provide a protected left turn for motorists.”
Ilkka described the reconfiguration of Oak Avenue’s lanes as one lane going each direction with a third lane in the middle designated for left-hand turns. He stated that this will help prevent potential rear-end crashes by motorists who may not be paying attention.
“I know that intuitively it seems that four lanes can handle more traffic better than three lanes, but I have been in communities that have done this and the three lanes have been able to carry higher traffic volumes,” Ilkka said as a response to public concern about traffic congestion. “When we made the change in Shakopee it operated well and safely reduced rear-end traffic accidents.”
Ilkka stated that he predicts the biggest interference to motorists once the lanes change will be that they will no longer have an option to pass a vehicle that they deem is going too slow.
“The other thing about three lanes is that it will be much safer for pedestrians to cross,” Ilkka added. “Right now we have the issue of what is called a shadow vehicle. When a vehicle in the outside lane stops to let pedestrians cross, that vehicle can block a motorists in the inside lane from seeing the pedestrian.”
“I think we’ve gotten pretty lucky that we haven’t taken anyone out yet,” he continued. “So this will remove that blocked visual.”
Right now there are sections along Oak Avenue that are closed down for some concrete pavement rehabilitation, which Ilkka predicts will last another three weeks. At that time the highway department will be able to begin the restriping, which will then lead to the eventual removal of the traffic signals.
“The exact timeframe of when the lights will be removed is yet to be determined,” Ilkka said. “It will be a minimum of several weeks from the restriping. We’ll let it settle out for about three or four weeks and then continue to talk with the city and city council for when they’re ready.”
Ilkka stated that there is still a chance that they will determine the traffic signals need to stay in place following the restriping, but that the probability is not high. When the initial traffic signal justification report was conducted, Ilkka said that it was done under the three-lane traffic model in order to properly evaluate the projected traffic. Current zoning areas were also incorporated, as certain types of zoning will generate certain levels of traffic — both at peak times and throughout the day.
“I don’t really anticipate those areas to make any changes from the analysis,” Ilkka said. “I know there has been some talk about further development on the west side of Oak, but that has been talked about for a long time. No one really knows what will happen or when.”
Ilkka stated that the current rehabilitation project isn’t intended to extend the life of the corridor significantly, but at most five to 10 years. He said that if issues develop at Vine Street or other intersections for to an increase in traffic that the highway department will address those under future projects.
In the meantime, the traffic signals will remained bagged until the final decision on whether or not to remove them is made.