2017 will bring more roundabouts to the Northland

Never widely in vogue before now, the roundabout is making its presence known in a big way in the Northland in 2017. Hibbing, Chisholm and Moose Lake are all getting versions the circular, right-flowing intersections with expected completions thi...

An artist's rendering of a proposed roundabout at Midway and Maple Grove roads in Hermantown. (Image courtesy of St. Louis County)
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Never widely in vogue before now, the roundabout is making its presence known in a big way in the Northland in 2017.

Hibbing, Chisholm and Moose Lake are all getting versions the circular, right-flowing intersections with expected completions this fall.

The Hermantown city government appears likely to approve one by summer's end, and Rice Lake is next on the list for consideration to receive one of the signal-free traffic islands which were invented and popularized by the British.

Itasca County first brought a roundabout into Grand Rapids 12 years ago. One opened at Highways 2 and 13 west of Ashland in 2012. And in 2015, a roundabout opened at the foot of the Bong Bridge in Superior.

But this year will see roundabouts spread in the region as never before.


Increasingly, planners and engineers favor roundabouts for the way the design manages traffic at busy or unsafe pinch points.

"They're a great alternative to a signalized intersection because they provide traffic calming - reduced speed, and you also don't have the amount of delay you have at the traffic signal," said Roberta Dwyer, a Duluth-based project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.


One thing roundabouts haven't seemed to correct is perception; the general public has been less-than-receptive to shaving angles from its intersections. The coming Hibbing roundabout required a diligent information campaign to begin to sway residents, and other parts of the state adopted the roundabout several years in advance of its full migration to the Northland.

"When you introduce a roundabout there's always going to be resistance - it's very predictable," said Victor Lund, a traffic engineer with St. Louis County. "When you install and build it the reaction becomes, 'This is all there is to it?' "

Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata is a building tradesman and fan of roundabouts.

"I drive all over for my job and my personal opinion is roundabouts move traffic better," he said. "People will like it once they get used to it."


The approval in spring 2016 of a pair of roundabouts on the western Iron Range ushered in this new roundabout era. The St. Louis County Board OK'd a roundabout near Hibbing Taconite as part of a mine expansion and subsequent highway relocation being funded by the mine for just under $5 million. The roundabout will be installed at the intersection of County Road 5/136 and Minnesota Highway 73 in Chisholm.

About 10 miles south, MnDOT has prepared a $2.85 million project beginning in May to replace signals at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 169 and Minnesota Highway 37 in Hibbing - where four lanes of divided highway converge from all directions.

Hibbing has Ron Wirkkula to thank for its citizens warming to the idea of a roundabout. Wirkkula is the president of Hibbing Public Access Television. He went about assuaging public concerns by frequently airing public-service programming on how to use roundabouts, and taping and airing discussions with MnDOT experts as they addressed the project and local concerns.

"Some people are scared to death, but some of us are looking forward to it - and I'm one of them," Wirkkula said. "It's a bad, worn-out intersection. A lot of times there's huge semi-trailer trucks hauling (to the mines). They've had to design for extra-big trailers. They have a plan and it's kind of neat."

Wirkkula said he expects to film a first-person video of himself driving the roundabout upon its completion, so that he can air it as an instructional video.

"Ron is just very interested in this, and he has been really great," said Duane Hill, district engineer for MnDOT's District 1 based in Duluth.

Cognizant of the need to educate the public, MnDOT also has had information booths at the St. Louis County Fair and Irongate Plaza in Hibbing, where nearly 300 people interacted with MnDOT during a weekend event earlier this spring, Hill said.

"We're trying to do a lot of outreach," Hill said. "There's a big aging population on the Iron Range and they seem to be the people most concerned. We feel like the reaction is going much better now that people are learning a bit more about it."


In Moose Lake, a $7.1 million project to rehabilitate the main drag through town will introduce a roundabout on Minnesota Highway 73 at its intersection with Carlton County Highway 10 - the main access road to the community's new high school.

"The roundabout was the best way to handle the high traffic volumes to and from the school," said city administrator Tim Peterson. "For the most part it's been well-received. We put out a lot of educational material about what the safety stats are."

Dwyer is overseeing the Moose Lake project. She said MnDOT's Toward Zero Deaths initiative shapes planning and has helped to elevate the roundabout as an option.

"They're very closely tied," she said. "Roundabouts are one of the tools in the toolbox for crash reduction."

In Hermantown, crash reduction was at the heart of the decision to propose a roundabout at the intersection of Maple Grove and Midway roads. A roundabout there would reduce crashes by 90 percent, Lund said. A public meeting on the project last week drew 80 people.

"Folks came in neutral to skeptical," Lund said. "They weren't opposed, but they want us to prove it. The reality is we enjoy the public meetings."

The next step for the Hermantown roundabout is city council approval; a vote is expected in late summer or early fall, Lund said. In the meantime, St. Louis County will ask the city council for a resolution in support of the project, so that the county can feel confident going ahead with planning a 2018 project.

Lund also is involved in the roundabout discussions that are being taken up in Rice Lake, where Rice Lake and Martin roads come together to create not so much a safety issue as a matter of inconvenience.

"There's traffic congestion at that intersection," Lund said. "Go there between 4-6 p.m. on a weekday and traffic can be lined up 1,000 feet in either direction."

Lund explained that the county has been acquiring rights of way at the intersection in anticipation of a solution. Commercially, a Kwik Trip is coming to the intersection. It figures to create even more of a need for a solution.

"Something is going to have to be done," Lund said. "If I were to look into the future, a roundabout is our best foot forward."

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