FIELD TOWNSHIP – Township residents, alarmed by several accidents involving young drivers on Alango Road, question the St. Louis County School District’s decision to have school buses take the road as a shortcut to the North Woods School.
“We were told there would be no bus traffic on the road,” said Jim Eisner. “But the district is using it big time with at least four buses on that road twice every day.”
District officials say they received assurances from St. Louis County that the road had been upgraded. In addition, the district’s Transportation Director Ed Dorman determined the road was safe.
But officials acknowledge part of their motivation for using the route is to save money. Dorman told school board member Nancy Wall Glowaski that he is under pressure to keep transportation expenses in line, and Superintendent Teresa Knife Chief said using the route for four buses saves the district $12,222 a year.
During the permitting process for the school, local residents and county officials had raised concerns about the safety of Alango Road, citing poor lines of sight due to rolling hills and an old narrow bridge that crosses Flint Creek.
“If Alango Road were to see significantly more traffic, the bridge would require replacing due to its narrow deck width,” wrote Chris Morris, who at the time worked for St. Louis County Public Works Department. In his email to Mary Anderson of the county’s Planning and Zoning Department, Morris added that hills on the road would need to be modified “to improve sight distance to a safe level.”
But the county did not take those corrective actions, relying instead on an assumption by higher-ups that the road would see little increase in traffic. “The bridge is in decent condition and we would not rebuild it on the basis of the school being built,” Public Works Director Jim Foldesi wrote in an email to Planning Director Barb Hayden and Anderson. Foldesi’s recommendation was conditioned on his stated belief that traffic on the road would not increase noticeably.
But township residents say traffic has gone up significantly on the rural road since the school was opened last fall and cite several accidents in just the past six months as evidence.
The most recent occurred last week when a young girl slammed her vehicle into a Caterpillar. Eisner was clearing snow from his driveway when the girl’s car came over the hill and slid into the back end of his machine. Neither Eisner nor the girl was hurt, but the latest in a string of incidents on the road has shaken residents.
Earlier in the school year, a car missed the turnoff for East Olson Road and ended up in the nearby woods. In another incident, a vehicle surprised a woman riding her horse as it came over the hill, spooking the animal.
“Those hills are vicious,” said Carol Kleven, a local resident. “They are not that high but you can not see traffic approaching. And now the gravel road is very slippery with snow and ice. Somebody is going to get hurt sooner or later.”
Field Township Chairman Keith Aho said the increase in traffic should have been anticipated. The road reduces the travel distance for some students to the North Woods School by several miles. In addition, he said, it provides an alternative route for those exiting the school after sporting events and other activities that draw large crowds.
“When you have cars lined up waiting to make a right turn on Highway 53, people are going to look for an alternative,” Aho said.
Those same issues were raised at public hearings when the district applied for a conditional use permit to construct the school. Gheen resident Dennis Peterson told the commission he was concerned over access to Alango Road, which will be primarily used by “young, inexperienced student drivers and creating a threat to roads that are already dangerous.”
Linden Grove Township resident John Hess raised the same concerns, saying that sight lines were poor on the road and a narrow bridge would likely need to be replaced.
“Given the large number of inexperienced drivers who are likely to travel the road if the school is built, it’s an accident waiting to happen,” he said.
Field Township officers voiced similar concerns, but were told that the increase in traffic on Alango Road would not be significant. Township supervisors pointed to what they considered a flaw in officials’ logic. “Why would the plan provide for 390 (parking) spaces and project peak hourly traffic at 98?” they asked in a June 6, 2010, response to an Environmental Assessment Worksheet for the school.
The St. Louis County Planning and Zoning Commission, which approved the conditional use permit on a 7-1 vote, stated in its motion that the Minnesota Department of Transportation had determined access roads near and at the school were adequate.
Then-Planning Commission Chairman Jack Huhta, who voted in favor of the permit, deflected criticism when challenged by Jim Saranpaa about the accidents that have occurred on the road since the school opened.
“The roads and access was a decision made by state and county highway departments,” he wrote to Saranpaa.
Superintendent Knife Chief said the county upgraded the road last summer and contacted Dorman to advise him that the road was acceptable to use. Dorman did his own inspection prior to the school year and concurred with the county’s assessment. Following the events of last week, he did a repeat visit and again found the road to be safe, according to Knife Chief.
But the upgrades made by the county were minimal. A contractor was hired to install new guardrails on the bridge and some additional signage was posted along the road, according to Dale Johnson, the maintenance supervisor for the Fourth District. The road received some additional gravel and was bladed, but Johnson classified those actions as “routine maintenance.”
The steps proposed by Morris — such as replacing the bridge and lowering the hills — were not undertaken.
Foldesi could not be reached for comment by the Timberjay’s deadline.
Meanwhile, the district, dealing with a budget deficit, has another incentive for traveling Alango Road.
In an email to the Timberjay, Knife Chief said using the road “saves four miles per trip and is the most efficient route for several of the buses that travel to North Woods.” Using the route saves the district $12,222 annually, she said.
While the road is technically designed for two-way traffic, local residents note that the bridge is, practically speaking, only wide enough for one vehicle at a time, particularly when buses are involved. Even when two cars meet near the bridge, it’s common practice for one to wait while the other passes over the bridge. The narrow bridge is also located near the bottom of two relatively steep hills, which local residents say increases the dangers posed by the bridge.
The use of Alango Road has reopened debate on the district’s site selection process for the North Woods School. Several local residents had warned that building the school in what is designated as rural agricultural land would undermine the rural character that residents in the township treasured and would prove to be a financial boondoggle for the district.
Saranpaa, an open critic of the district, goes as far as suggesting that Johnson Controls Inc., which served as the district’s consultant on the school remodeling and construction project, should be billed for any improvements made to increase the safety of access roads to the school.
Others, however, just want the county and state to move more quickly on creating safer entrances to the school.
“The way Alango Road is now just isn’t safe for the kind of traffic it’s getting,” said Field Township resident Jim Enzmann, who lives along the road.