After a close vote by the Oak Park Heights City Council July 22, the North Frontage Road at Highway 36 and Osgood will be rebuilt along its current route, instead of being rerouted around Fury Motors.
The city council supported the concept of a reroute, which would have pushed the intersection of the frontage road and Osgood north about 300 feet, putting it about 500 feet north of Highway 36. Currently only 200 feet separate the intersections, and that causes traffic problems.
Although the council supported the design, concerns about future costs kept three of the five members from approving a proposal from Washington County and MnDOT.
Under the proposal, MnDOT and the county would have paid to build the frontage road, and the city would taken ownership of it approximately three years later. The city would also have donated the land from the Westbury property, a single family home it purchased at a cost of about $330,000 earlier this year. The home would have been demolished to make way for the new road.
But council members were concerned about the future costs of owning and maintaining the road long term, including replacement costs in 30 years.
“We’ve been given some costs anywhere between $880,000 to $1.3 million (for maintenance and replacement),” Councilmember Mark Swenson said. He is concerned about the tax impact.
Although he believes moving the frontage road would be best, Swenson said, he doesn’t think the city can afford to take on the costs ownership at this point. Councilmembers Mike Liljegren and Mike Runk agreed.
“I would like to see it moved,” Liljegren said. “It comes down to what you can afford.”
Councilmember Chuck Dougherty disagreed, saying the change would encourage economic development, as well as improve safety.
“This would increase the value of those commercial businesses, thus making them improve the tax base, too,” he said. “The idea is to improve that corner and get it developed. If we don’t do anything, it might sit empty.”
Jim Leonard, co-owner of Fury Motors, which has a dealership near the intersection, said his company has a vested interest as a partner in Oak Park Heights, and he agreed with Dougherty.
“Taxes do increase significantly with investment,” he said. “And I just want to make sure that is clear that for us to invest, we have to have proper access.”
That’s of special concern for Leonard, because the county has said it will likely install a median down Osgood in the future for safety reasons, if the frontage road stays where it is. The county has said that would cut off left-turn access from Osgood to the North Frontage Road.
Leonard said recently that Fury Motors wouldn’t have the “desire or ability” to move forward with plans for a new building at its dealership near Osgood unless it’s ensured “proper access” in the long term.
But Runk and Liljegren feel it isn’t fair for the county and state to play the safety card now, because both entities approved a design two years ago in which the frontage road didn’t move.
“MnDOT and the county didn’t have a problem with that, or they would’ve changed it,” Liljegren said. “Why wasn’t that done if it was a safety issue at that time?”
Runk agreed and went a step further.
“They’re lining up the business owners to say, ‘Oak Park Heights, you better do this,’” Runk said. “I don’t like the way this is being handled. I don’t like the threat of a median. It’s not on any of the plans, and these plans were approved two years ago.”
MnDOT representative Jon Chiglo said the county and MnDOT have considered a number of options for the intersection over the years, and always had safety in mind. But he said safety wasn’t the only reason for the proposal.
“This is an opportunity for you to get a state investment in this facility,” he said. He added that if it doesn’t happen now, there probably won’t be state funding for it in the foreseeable future, because it wouldn’t compete well against other projects in the metro area vying for funds.
Chiglo also said he expects that in the future the state will ask the city to take ownership of the frontage roads anyway.
Mayor Mary McComber said that if the city was eventually going to have to take over the frontage roads anyway, she’d rather take over a road that functions properly.
She also said that considering all the benefits, the costs over a 30 year period are minimal.
“To me, it would be a mistake not to do this,” she said. “Some future council is going to have to move that at their own cost, and I imagine somebody will say, ‘Why didn’t they do that when they had a chance?’”
But the majority of council members didn’t feel they could justify the cost, especially because Oak Park Heights may not reach the population threshold of 5,000 to qualify for state aid for roads.
“The burden falls entirely on the taxpayers of Oak Park Heights,” Runk said.
“I don’t know how I can look out there and say, ‘You guys’ taxes are going up,’” Liljegren said.
The council voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution to approve the design but refuse to accept ownership of the road. Dougherty and McComber dissented.
With the city unwilling to take ownership, Chiglo said MnDOT would direct the contractor to follow the original plans and rebuild the road in the same location.
Contact Jonathan Young at firstname.lastname@example.org