Watertown council chooses roundabout, no median

Absent any unforeseen complications, the new bridge constructed in Watertown next summer will feature a turn lane in the middle and a roundabout at the intersection of Territorial Street and Lewis Avenue.

The Watertown City Council made that long-awaited decision during its May 28 meeting, giving significant clarity to a river crossing issue that has lingered for several years. Decisions on what the bridge and intersection should look like and how they should function were some of the final questions left to be answered after the city council first began discussing several years the questions of if, when and where a second bridge should be built in Watertown.

Even after the council — after several years of conversations — ultimately decided not to construct a second crossing, options for reconstruction of the existing bridge became nearly as contentious as the original debate. Last week, the council finally put many of those discussions to rest by selecting what the city termed a “roundabout hybrid” option from among four primary alternatives.

The option was termed a roundabout hybrid because it does not include a controversial element that was part of preliminary drawings depicting the roundabout option. Those drawings proposed a median running east all the way from the new roundabout at Lewis Avenue to the existing roundabout at County Road 20, which would prevent vehicles from making left turns onto Mill Avenue or Hope Avenue or any of the driveways along the way.

While such a median would be aimed at promoting a continuous flow of traffic through the area, it proved to be wildly unpopular from many residents and business owners. Instead, the council opted for an option that will include a continuous middle turn lane between the roundabouts that drivers headed in either direction can use to make left turns.

“I like the openness that no medians gives to downtown,” councilor Steven Crowder said during the meeting. “A concrete median looks like we are just here to funnel traffic, and we don’t care about you stopping in town. We want people to stop in Watertown.”

The chosen option will come with an estimated total price tag of $4.08 million, with the city’s share expected to be about $1.08 million. That figure doesn’t factor in the $350,000 in Local Road Improvement Project funding the city received from the state for work at the intersection of Lewis and Territorial, but it also doesn’t include costs the city will likely incur for cosmetic enhancements to the bridge and intersection.

The chosen option rates highly in terms of how it will handle traffic and accommodate future growth. However, it scored slightly lower in terms of safety than a roundabout with a median would have scored, though it still received a “good” rating in terms of safety.

“The median on paper look safer with fewer turning movements, but the consensus we got from the comment cards is not to have the median,” councilor Adam Pawelk said. “Plus, the turn lanes will improve the safety from what (we have now).”

The selected option will also come with a slightly higher price tag for the city than a roundabout with a median, because, under a Joint Powers Agreement with the County, the city agreed to take on all costs associated with making the bridge wider than 50 feet, which will be necessary to include the turn lane and a sidewalk on one side. With a median, the expected city share would have been about $969,000.

In recent weeks, the possibility of a bridge replacement only seemed to be gaining at least a little momentum in some circles of public opinion.  That option would have simply reconstructed the current bridge and left the intersection as it is. Such a proposal would likely have allowed the NAPA auto parts store on the northeast corner of Lewis and Territorial to remain — a roundabout will not — and would have come at the cheapest price. A simple replacement would cost $2.5 million overall and just $500,000 for the city.

However, that option rated poorly in terms of performance, safety, and the accommodation of future city growth. Also, that option would waste the $350,000 in funding from the state, which can only be used for work at the intersection. That money is expected to bring the city’s share of the more costly roundabout option a bit closer to what its share would have been with a simple rebuild.

The other option on the table was a signalized intersection. That option rated highly in terms of performance and future growth, but some concerns were raised regarding the idea of letting traffic flow through the intersection unimpeded, and the safety hazards it could create. It also likely would have required the city to turn Mill Avenue into a cul-de-sac, and would have come with the highest price tag: $4.7 million overall with a city share of $1.46 million.

A roundabout was favored by most of the council for its ability to keep traffic flowing safely through the intersection without stopping. Councilor Michael Walters cited a recent St. Paul Pioneer Press article that included statistics that revealed that roundabouts typically reduce both the frequency and severity of crashes, in large part because all traffic slows as it reaches the intersection, drivers must look in only one direction, and even when vehicles do crash, they are moving at low speeds in the same general direction. At signalized intersections, most crashes tend to be when a vehicle runs a red light and smashes the side of another vehicle at a higher speed.

While the vote in favor of a hybrid roundabout was unanimous, councilor Steve Washburn expressed the most opposition. He said he doesn’t like the idea of a roundabout in this location, but felt he was being pushed into supporting it because of the high price tag of a signalized intersection, and the fact he wouldn’t want to close off Mill Avenue.

“As we approach this project and everything we do, we have to be very cognizant of our windshield appeal,” he said. “If that roundabout is just a little roundabout with a piece of grass in the middle, I’m not going to support it.

“A roundabout can destroy the character and charm of our downtown,” he continued. “I’m going to fight very hard to make sure we’re investing in that roundabout to make it the prettiest roundabout you can find in the state to match our downtown.”


In other business:

The city council raised the fee for liquid waste haulers to dump septic tank waste at the Watertown Wastewater Treatment Facility. Currently, haulers were being charged $20 per 1,000 gallons. At the recommendation of councilor Michael Walters, who felt those waste haulers should see a similar rate increase to the one homeowners saw earlier this year when water and sewer rates were raised, city staff looked into how much other cities charge for the service.

“We’ve raised the rates for all of our constituents,” Walters said. “I think it should be applicable for everybody that uses the facility.”

City administrator Luke Fischer reported back to the council last week that there are two primary cities where haulers that dump at the Watertown facility also dump waste. Cologne charges $25 and Plymouth charges $53.20 for 1,000 gallons.

Fischer recommended raising the rate to $27 per 1,000 gallons, but the council ultimately settled at $26 after Washburn didn’t want to go quite so high.


Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]