Before granting a conditional use permit to build the North Woods School, St. Louis County claimed it had addressed public safety concerns raised by area residents.
But those concerns, specifically about increased traffic on Alango Road, were ignored. Instead, county officials simply declared (without evidence) that Alango Road would not see any significant jump in traffic.
But since the school opened in September, this narrow and hilly gravel road has seen a significant increase in traffic, as well as several accidents and near misses. The most recent occurred last week when a teenage girl slid into the back end of heavy machinery operated by local farmer Jim Eisner. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but the public shouldn’t have to depend on good luck when operating on Alango Road.
The hazards are increased with the decision of ISD 2142 to run four of its school buses daily over Alango Road. Despite the added school bus and other traffic, the county has failed to reduce potential safety hazards— even those identified by its own staff. Instead, it has taken token measures — putting new guard rails on a narrow bridge over Flint Creek and adding some signage on the road.
It’s not as if the county couldn’t anticipate the problems. Several people, including the Field Township Chairman, testified at public hearings that building a school at the district’s chosen site would result in a significant amount of additional traffic on a road that was designed strictly for limited local use. It was common sense that people arriving from the west would use Alango Road as a shortcut to the school, as many nearby residents had predicted during the permitting phase of the project. Indeed, ISD 2142 also chose that shortcut to cut transportation costs.
County Public Works staff had cautioned that increased traffic on Alango Road could create unsafe conditions. Chris Morris, a county public works official who now works for MnDOT, was dispatched back in 2010 to investigate the concerns raised about the road by local residents. In an email he later sent to his boss— County Public Works Director Jim Foldesi— Morris stated that if the road were to see significantly more traffic, the narrow bridge over Flint Creek would need to be replaced. In addition, he said some of the hills on the road should be modified to improve sight distance to a safe level.
But no such actions were taken, as county officials opted instead to ignore the warnings of local residents. At the time, Foldesi, who is based in Duluth, simply proclaimed that drivers wouldn’t opt to take the shortcut. Unfortunately, wishful thinking typically isn’t the best way to address such concerns. In this case, Foldesi clearly erred.
And it’s not just the county that dropped the ball on safety. The Minnesota Department of Transportation had determined the need for a left-turn lane on Highway 53 at the Olson Road entrance and also recommended a reduction in speed near the entrance to the school. A speed limit of 40 mph was initially proposed when the school was in session or after-school activities were underway.
But none of these safety measures was in place when the school opened. It was only after some close calls that a speed limit sign of 45 mph was posted near the Olson Road entrance to the school. The left-turn lane may be added eventually as part of the Highway 53 improvement project, depending on whether any funds remain after the four-lane stretch from Rice River to Cook is completed.
That’s not acceptable. Delays in improving the safety of both Alango Road and the East Olson Road entrance to the North Woods School puts motorists, local residents, and schoolchildren at risk. The sooner those risks are addressed, the better. Both the state and county need to make safety improvements on the roads leading to the North Woods School a top priority.