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HIGHWAY 371 LANES OPEN: New roadway open from Pequot Lakes to Jenkins

Six and a half years after a final decision to route a four-lane Highway 371 just east of downtown Pequot Lakes instead of along the existing route straight through town, those new highway lanes were to open Tuesday, June 6, from Pequot Lakes to ...

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Six and a half years after a final decision to route a four-lane Highway 371 just east of downtown Pequot Lakes instead of along the existing route straight through town, those new highway lanes were to open Tuesday, June 6, from Pequot Lakes to Jenkins.

The opening, including a full interchange with on and off ramps at County State Aid Highway 11 in Pequot Lakes, comes after years of planning and work, years of controversy regarding an around-town or a through-town route in Pequot Lakes, and years of seeing the construction timeline flip flop forward and backward.

The Pequot Lakes City Council gave its final stamp of approval for the around-town route Dec. 14, 2010, on a 4-1 vote. Several years earlier, the council had agreed to look at a through-town highway expansion. That work began, but then the council - with some new members - changed course and asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation to instead study a highway route east of downtown.

Once the council granted municipal consent for that alternate route in 2010, the decision could not be changed.

At the time of that crucial city council vote, the project was scheduled to begin in 2018. The $49.9 million project to expand Highway 371 to four lanes from Nisswa to Jenkins finally got the green light in 2014, when $45 million in Corridors of Commerce funding was announced. That announcement included a surprise - construction would begin in 2016, two years earlier than anticipated.

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Now the project is slated to be complete by the end of October this year, with work still occurring from Nisswa to Pequot Lakes where traffic is still on two lanes. The highway expansion project is designed to improve safety and traffic flow on those nine miles of Highway 371.

Other traffic changes

Work continues on the Highway 371 project, especially between Nisswa and Pequot Lakes:

• Highway 371 between Nisswa and County Road 168/County Road 107 (Timberjack Smokehouse) will remain a two-lane work zone until September.

• Highway 371 traffic shifted to the new northbound alignment from just north of Nisswa to County Road 168.

• Right turns only are allowed at Nisswa Avenue and Highway 371.

• To access County Road 29 or other roads in the Edna Lake and West Twin Lake area west of Highway 371, follow the detour along Highway 371 to the Villa View Drive/Lower Cullen Road intersection.

• Lower Cullen Road is closed at Highway 371. To access Lower Cullen Road, use Roy Lake Road.

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• Existing Highway 371 from County Road 168 south to Dell Road in Pequot Lakes is temporarily closed. County Road 168 will remain open and accessible using the new Highway 371/County Road 168/County Road 107 intersection.

• The existing Highway 371 roadway is named "Patriot Avenue."

• All lanes of County Road 16 in Jenkins are open, and the signal system at Highway 371/County Road 16 is operational.

• The Myers Road detour ended.

• Motorists may encounter periodic lane or shoulder closures in north Pequot Lakes/Jenkins as crews complete access road connections and establish turf along the roadway.

Effective at 10 a.m. Monday, June 12:

• Existing Highway 371 will be closed from County Road 168 north 1,000 feet. Traffic will be detoured to the County Road 11 interchange. This closure is need to reconstruct the new connection to Highway 371.

Council members comment

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Following are comments about the highway opening from the Pequot Lakes City Council members who were part of the December 2010 final decision to have Highway 371 expand to four lanes east of downtown.

• Nancy Adams, mayor in 2010

"I'm very pleased to see it finally opening. ... What it does is it allows us to focus on plans for the new center of town - being able to fix roads, take out the highway section of 371 and make it a park that includes the flag display, the splash park and ice skating area in addition to the existing playground.

"It really allows us to start planning and make people understand what we want to achieve. ... I think it will significantly enhance the businesses in town.

"Pequot is not a tourist town. It is a destination, and people are going to come here because we are a destination. They want to use our grocery store. They want the year-round things that Pequot has to offer. They may go to the cabin first, but they will come back to town to use the grocery store, restaurants, park and businesses."

Adams, who is again mayor of Pequot Lakes, is also part of the Thriving Communities Initiative, an effort spearheaded by the Initiative Foundation to plan for Pequot Lakes' future with a changed traffic pattern.

• Cathy Malecha, council member in 2010

"I think this new highway will bring opportunities to Pequot. The new park concept is wonderful. This will unite the east and west side of town and make the town more accessible for residents and tourists.

"A wise man (the late/former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar) once told me that, 'Pequot was the only community where the Paul Bunyan Trail ran through the center and Pequot is like a pearl on a necklace.'

"Now with the highway going around and the park being redesigned, this vision will become a reality. A big thank you to all who worked so hard on these projects and for having a vision for the future of our city."

• Craig Nagel, council member in 2010

"Making a decision regarding the future is never easy. Dependable crystal balls are hard to find. When MnDOT came to the city of Pequot Lakes and informed us that they would be widening Highway 371 to four lanes, those of us on the city council at the time were forced to choose between expanding the existing right-of-way and having a road the size of a freeway run smack through the middle of town or routing the highway around the eastern edge of the city.

"Critics claimed such a bypass would do irreparable economic damage and turn Pequot into a ghost town. I believe the future will prove them wrong. What matters most is our ability as citizens to keep working together for the common good.

"I'm excited. I think we're doing the right thing and I'm really impressed with the speed and the care with which this project has been done thus far."

• Dave Sjoblad, council member in 2010

"I think that, from my perspective, the long lines at the stoplight that were coming through town will not exist anymore. The town will be for the people who want to be here. The people going to other locations ... will be able to pass through and not get a bad feeling about town.

"As far as I can see, there's more businesses coming into town so it doesn't seem to have hurt the business community much. At my son's cafe (Hungry Loon Cafe), the business continued to go up even when (CSAH) 11 was closed to Breezy Point. I think merchants just have to think - if they do good service and become a destination for what their trade is, they have nothing to worry about."

"All in all, we're really in good shape."

• Tom Ryan, council member in 2010:

Ryan cast the lone vote against routing the highway around Pequot Lakes, saying it would hurt the downtown businesses.

"Good luck. I hope for the best for the Pequot businesses."

Project managers comment

The Highway 371 project has had the attention of three project managers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

• Tony Hughes, current design build project manager: Hughes was the original pre-design project manager in 2002, and then took over again in October 2015 once the project moved into construction.

"I've been involved off and on since the beginning," Hughes said. "It's been a long time in development, with a lot of residents and business owners involved. It's a culmination of a lot of work both by the city, the county and the state."

Hughes said it's pretty satisfying to see such a large project he's worked on near completion. It's the largest project done in MnDOT's District 3, he said.

Hughes emphasized that though the Pequot Lakes alignment is open, there is still a lot of work being done with equipment next to traffic between Nisswa and Pequot Lakes. He urged caution in those areas.

• Tim Bray, former project manager and current Crow Wing County highway engineer: Bray took over for Hughes in 2003 or 2004 and was project manager until he joined the county in 2009.

Bray was working on the then-preferred through-town highway option when he was deployed overseas. During his deployment, the city council switched to an around-town highway option.

"I call it my casualty of that war - the through-town option," he said, noting that as a good soldier, he returned and switched to pursuing the alternate route.

Bray said he had to deliver the messages that the highway project was delayed until 2012 and then 2018.

"That was a little frustrating to have to deliver those messages," he said. "I'm glad to see it done after so many years of having the city be unsure. MnDOT and the county asked the city to be patient for a long time. ... It left a lot in limbo for the city of Pequot for a long time."

Bray said he learned that people despised the waiting, which is a reason why as county highway engineer every five-year plan is a promise that is delivered.

Regarding the future, Bray said he's seen literature that said bypasses of communities are less about the traffic and more about how city leaders react to it.

"The ones who react and reconfigure, survive. I'm seeing Pequot Lakes doing that," he said, noting investment in downtown. "I think the confidence is growing that it will still be a viable community."

• Jim Hallgren, former project manager: Hallgren became project manager when Bray was deployed in 2006, and again when Bray left MnDOT in 2009. Hughes then took over when construction started in 2016.

"It's nice to see that it's actually going to be completed," said Hallgren, who also worked on the through-town route and the alternate route when the city decided to go that way. "There were a lot of opinions shared on the preferred alternative through the years. Hopefully now that we are actually going to get it completed it will be ultimately good for the community to have closure and move forward from this point on."

Open house set June 15

Minnesota Department of Transportation and Highway 371 project leaders will host an outdoor open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, June 15, alongside vendors at the Pequot Lakes Market in the Park event near the chamber information center.

Visit www.mndot.gov/d3/hwy371 for recent news, detours, maps, photos and contact information and to sign up for email updates about the highway project.

Related Topics: PEQUOT LAKESNISSWAJENKINS
Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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