Lakes area drivers can expect four new roundabouts among the $65.5 million worth of projects planned by the Crow Wing County Highway Department over the next five years.
County Engineer Tim Bray said three of the four intersections selected for reconstruction present safety risks, including crash potential, and have long been problematic. These include the intersections of Beaver Dam and Wise roads north of Brainerd in 2022, county highways 3 and 11 south of Crosslake in 2023 and county highways 3 and 4 north of Merrifield in 2024. A fourth roundabout planned for 2023 at the intersection of Highway 210 and County Highway 31 is driven by a grocery store development project in the city of Crosby.
“With roundabouts, the reduction in fatal and serious crashes is a 75-85% reduction. So if you had 100 crashes, you’d have 15 the next year if you install this. That’s a huge reduction,” Bray said during a Tuesday, April 20, phone interview. “ … They work well, and people are getting used to them. There’s certainly folks that don’t like them, but you know, I’d rather have them complain about them than get hurt.”
According to statistics provided by the highway department, each of the three intersections considered problematic was the site of one fatal crash over the last decade. During that same time period, a total of 14 crashes occurred at county highways 3 and 4, while there were 13 crashes at both the 3 and 11 and Beaver Dam and Wise intersections. These Minnesota Department of Transportation statistics include fatal and life-altering crashes along with those causing less serious injuries, possible injuries and property damage alone.
This is just over one crash per year per intersection on average — not a high number, Bray noted. But, he said, fatalities and past crashes alone are not the driving factors behind the county’s decision-making in highway safety improvements.
“For every time that somebody says, ‘How many people have to die to get this or that,’ the answer is zero. The answer is zero. Nobody has to die at these intersections or any of these places for us to do anything,” Bray said. “And I think even though there’s already a fatality at each of those, we’re doing it to be proactive. They’ve already emerged as a challenge.”
County highways 3 and 11
The highway department has implemented other traffic control strategies at both of the County Highway 3 intersections, neither of which have proven to be as effective as desired, Bray said. At the intersection with County Highway 11, there’s been a progression from one stop sign on the right side of 11, to an additional stop sign on the left side with post reflectors, to the current setup of signs with blinking lights. Still, Bray said, people continue to run the stop sign, primarily during the summer months when traffic volumes are higher and visitors proliferate the roads.
The next step the highway department would consider is an intersection improvement. Signalized intersections are no longer considered safety devices by state and federal agencies because of their propensity for more serious crashes, Bray said, and a four-way stop at that location may actually make things worse.
“One of the things we’re dealing with here is our traffic quadruples almost, particularly in the Crosslake area (in the summer). So that four-way stop might work in July to kind of slow things down, but come January, February, you start impeding a lot of people and then you’re enticing them — if nobody’s at the stop sign and you’re stopping every time, you’re encouraging people to run it. And then as soon as they kind of take matters into their own hands, they may make a poor decision and will have catastrophic results,” Bray said.
County highways 3 and 4
To the south at the County Highway 4 intersection, a rural intersection conflict warning system — the diamond-shaped yellow sign warning drivers of entering traffic with flashing lights — replaced an overhead blinking yellow light some years ago. But Bray said they consistently get complaints about the setup and when drivers are approaching from the north on 4, there’s just barely enough time for those entering from County Highway 3 to avoid a collision.
Planning efforts around improving this intersection have been underway for years. In 2017, the county purchased property from a homeowner in the southeast quadrant of the intersection in preparation for future changes. This decision came after a model predicted the intersection would be “failing” within 20 years based on the traffic volumes at one of the busiest intersections on the county highway system.
“We’d like to make County Road 3 the continuous move,” Bray said. “Right now you’ve got to come up and take a deliberate right-hand turn (from Brainerd), and County Road 3 is kind of our backbone of the county.”
Wise and Beaver Dam roads
The last intersection considered problematic is the T-intersection at Beaver Dam and Wise roads. Bray again pointed to high traffic volumes on Wise Road as a significant factor, with an average annual daily traffic of 6,000 vehicles. In addition to one fatal crash in the last 10 years, the intersection was also the site of two “Class A” crashes, or those considered very severe or life-altering.
Geometrics at the location also pose a challenge, with Beaver Dam Road meeting Wise in the center of a right-angle curve. Drivers attempting left turns must turn against the bank of the road, meaning it requires a sharper than usual maneuver.
“It’s an awkward turn for people, it’s high speed. This is going to calm some of the traffic down there. You can only go through these (roundabouts), they’re designed so you can only go through them about 25 mph,” Bray said. “ … It might slow traffic down a bit, but I think getting people to their destination safe is more important than getting to their destination 10 seconds earlier.”
Other notable highway plans
During the April 13 Crow Wing County Board meeting, commissioners unanimously approved the 2021-25 highway improvement plan.
Among the notable changes from the previous year’s plan was the delay of a resurfacing project on County Highway 12, also known as the Deerwood Shortcut, from 2024 to 2025. Bray said it was the first time since he’s led the department they’ve had to delay a promised project of this size and he blamed it on a significant decrease in state aid funding. With gas tax revenues depressed amid reduced travel during the pandemic, Crow Wing County’s 2021 allocation was down by about $750,000 from what was expected.
With uncertainty surrounding the rebound of gas tax revenue, Bray said the department is projecting a total reduction from this source of $3 million.
“That funding source will continue to take awhile to recover and we thought it was not prudent to push through (the project),” Bray said during the meeting. “The good thing is we recognized that and made our request for federal funds in 2025. … If it recovers faster, we think we’ll try to get it back in 2024.”
Other major projects on the docket include finishing the reconstruction of County Highway 13 this year, the addition of reduced conflict intersections on Highway 371 at county roads 125 and 126 (near the entrance of Brainerd International Raceway) in 2022, and the reconstruction of County Road 115 (Ojibwa Road) in 2023 and 2024.
Although not in the current five-year plan, the county also recently applied for grant funding to potentially improve County Road 170 (Mapleton Road) west of Mountain Ash Drive. County officials reported that portion of the road was not constructed to any standard and is not built to handle additional traffic capacity, which is expected to continue increasing with the addition of the new Baxter Elementary School.
Timeline of major projects
2021 — Reconstruction of County Highway 13, from Highway 371 to County Road 137.
2022 — Installation of reduced conflict intersection at Highway 371 and County Road 125.
2022 — Installation of roundabout at Beaver Dam and Wise roads.
2023 — Reconstruction of the south side of County Road 115, otherwise known as Ojibwa Road.
2023 — Installation of roundabout at county highways 3 and 11.
2024 — Reconstruction of the north side of County Road 115.
2024 — Installation of roundabout at county highway 3 and 4; installation of roundabout at Highway 210 and County Highway 31.