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Fatal accident puts renewed attention on safety along 70th Street in Cottage Grove

Crews from Washington County and a pavement contractor were restriping 70th Street in Cottage Grove over the weekend to eliminate right-turn lanes and create a dedicated center left-turn lane. The project was planned before an Oct. 29 fatal accident but was prompted by driver and neighbor safety complaints. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

A fatal pedestrian crash last week put renewed attention on the safety of 70th Street in Cottage Grove.

Just days after 85-year-old retired Rev. Benjamin Tims was struck by a vehicle and killed while crossing the street, Washington County started restriping the road to eliminate right-turn lanes and create a dedicated center lane for left turns.

The safety project was planned before the Oct. 29 crash, officials said, and was not altered after Tims’ death. The road improvements were, however, expedited following complaints earlier this year.

“We’ve heard the concerns and we’re trying to address them,” Washington County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said in an interview.

The road was not scheduled for major improvements for several years, but county officials decided to use the restriping as a pilot project before further upgrades are made in 2017. Those improvements planned for 2017 will include widening the road and adding right-turn lanes, Sandberg said.

Vocal, concerned neighbors prompted the restriping project, said Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who represents the area. Lehrke said she started getting calls from citizens over the summer and heard even more during a meeting of a homeowners’ association near 70th Street.

“The urgency of all these problems really made us re-evaluate the situation,” Lehrke said.

The county’s pilot project is appreciated, but it doesn’t fully address safety concerns that for years have frustrated Cottage Grove officials, City Council member Justin Olsen said.

Olsen lives near 70th Street and Hardwood Avenue and got involved in city politics in part because of the street’s safety issues. The roadway will not be able to accommodate future traffic estimates and can be dangerous due to its hills, he said. And intersections, such as at Hinton Avenue, don’t handle rush-hour traffic well.

Olsen said he and other city officials want the road expanded sooner than 2025, when county officials estimate it will see a major overhaul. Bumping up the project probably will require a multi-million-dollar city investment, but Olsen said it would be worth the cost. He expects more city discussion about 70th Street improvements soon.

“You have to ask yourself at what cost if you do it and at what cost if you don’t,” he said. “It is a very difficult situation today and it’s only going to become more difficult over time.”

70th Street is also known as Washington County Highway 22 and is maintained by the county. It sees an average of 8,000 to 9,000 vehicles a day.

The new left-turn lane established in the pilot restriping project stretches from Hardwood Avenue to a median west of Goodview Avenue and approaching the Highway 61 interchange. The Tims home is within the project area.

Sandberg said the restriping project is not a “silver bullet” for safety concerns along 70th Street, but it’s an attempt to address the No. 1 complaint from drivers — the danger of slowing down in a through lane and waiting to turn left.

All of the crash details were not available early this week, but officials said they did not expect to make any changes to the road as a direct result of the fatality. They do plan to review crash information though.

“One of the things we want to look at is what were the specific factors with this particular crash,” Sandberg said. “Obviously it’s a tragedy for everybody involved.”

The speed limit along 70th Street is 50 mph. Police said there was no indication the driver in the fatal crash was traveling above the speed limit, and a witness estimated the vehicle was going 35-45 mph.

A 2008 traffic study concluded that 50 mph is a safe speed for the road, Sandberg said.

That speed limit could get another look, however. In conjunction with the restriping project, the county will ask state traffic officials to re-evaluate the speed limit in that area. That study takes about a year, Sandberg said.

Tims was hit after walking across the street to his mailbox. Sandberg said the county is working with the U.S. Postal Service on ways to move mailboxes to the same side of 70th Street as the houses they serve.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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