OWATONNA — It has been a trying week on downtown traffic as the Rose Street road construction began and the preparation has started to transition Oak Avenue from four to three. To add to the stress, the Canadian Pacific Railway decided Monday to begin work on the railway crossing that connects Bridge and Main Streets, blocking off a main throughway and additionally backing up traffic.
This may not have been the case if the traffic signals on the intersection of Oak Avenue and Vine Street hadn’t been decommissioned earlier this summer — at least that’s what the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism is saying.
“There are too many changes going on at once,” said Chamber President and CEO Brad Meier. “With all the stuff that is going on, it would only make sense to leave the lights in and see how it plays out.”
In addition to the road construction, Meier also noted that a potentially popular business is slated to open near the intersection in questions. Mineral Springs Brewery, a microbrewery located on 111 N. Walnut Avenue, has been making rapid progress this summer with hopes of opening yet this year. The brewery will be the first of its kind in Owatonna and is hoping to include food trucks on site as well as local food delivery.
“With Mineral Springs Brewery developing in that area we have the anticipation of there being more traffic,” Meier added. “Once they’re open I think we need to see what that will look like.”
With a more long-term vision in mind, Meier also noted a future bike lane that the Streetscapes Plan has designed to run down Vine Street, connecting the bike path along the river to downtown. The Streetscapes Plan is a collaborative effort between the Chamber’s MainStreet program and the City of Owatonna.
“Vine makes the most sense because it will align straight across to downtown,” Meier explained. “If you were to do it by the Chamber you kind of have to jog over to Pearl Street. It isn’t straight across to downtown. That is why the Vine Street location makes the most sense to bring you right into the heart of downtown.”
The decommissioning of the traffic signals on Vine and Oak — as well as the signals on Oak and McKinley Street — was announced in June after the Steele County Highway Department were able to analyze the most recent signal justification report that had been completed in 2017. The reported showed that the two intersections on Oak Avenue, which is also County Highway 45, do not have the vehicle and pedestrian traffic volume requirements needed to justify the signals.
Meier, however, believes that circumstances are rapidly changing and that a second evaluation may be necessary before the county permanently removes the signals.
“We know that once those signals are out that they’re not going to be put back in,” Meier said. Ideally, Meier said that he would like to see the signals remain in place to further observe the way traffic will be inevitably changing in the upcoming months. He said that he is even OK with their remaining bagged, which he feels could possible give them a better chance at observing how effective a two-way stop would truly be in that area.
“If people are observing issues and problems, then we can evaluate the situation and possibly turn them back on,” Meier said.
Because the lights on the intersection of a county highway, it will be up to Steele County on whether the traffic lights will remain in place a little longer. During the Owatonna City Council meeting on Tuesday, city engineer Kyle Skov noted that he requested that the lights remain in place at least until the restriping of Oak Avenue is complete. Council members thanked Skov for making the request, with a couple of them stating that they have concerns with that intersection.
“We are just urging for some patience and not to remove them just yet,” Meier said. “I’m hoping we can all work through this.”
Meier said he has yet to hear back from the county commissioners on this matter, but that he has been in communication with the county engineer and county administrator.
“Given the reconfiguration of Oak Avenue to three lanes, there has been a little bit of confusion with when [the signals] should be taken out,” explained County Administrator Scott Golberg, adding that the Minnesota Department of Transportation gives the guidance of 60 to 90 days to remove a signal after it has been decommissioned. “We will be delaying the process until the restriping is done on Oak and continuing the monitoring period for that intersection.”
Golberg added that the concerns from the chamber — as well as from the City of Owatonna — are being taken into consideration and that the intersection is most definitely on the county’s radar.