Mark Fischenich: Ask Us: Safety behind seemingly strange MnDOT sign strategy

May 14—Q: Dear Ask Us Guy,

Another issue is on Highway 68 near the Minneopa Cemetery road. When heading west, the Minneopa Falls turn sign is still covered up even though it's been open for quite some time. The sign going east on Highway 68 is uncovered. I could see that messing with some drivers during the summer vacation season.

A: So this is the second half of some questions by a highly observant road-sign-watching "Ask Us" reader. Last week's column handled the first half. In both cases, Minnesota Department of Transportation traffic engineer Scott Thompson provided the answers.

And in both cases, what looked like a MnDOT mess-up actually has a logical explanation.

"This seemingly conflicting signage was deliberate, as temporary alternate guide signs have been installed," Thompson said of the signs directing visitors to the southern segment of Minneopa State Park.

The park, for those who aren't familiar with it, is made up of two disconnected portions. The northern portion, where the bison roam, is accessible only from Highway 68. The original Minneopa State Park — focused on the waterfalls and park office and picnic area — can be reached from either Highway 68 or Highway 60/169.

The temporary alternate signs aim to divert some park-goers to the Highway 60/169 option to ease the burden on Highway 68, which is dealing with a surge in traffic. The two-lane highway, which has quite a few hills and curves, is the official detour route for Highway 14 traffic diverted by the big four-lane expansion project between Nicollet and New Ulm.

While Highway 68 is the only route to the bison/campground portion of Minneopa, MnDOT would prefer that people going to the falls area — particularly those coming from Mankato and points north and east — use Highway 169/60.

"The temporary signs guide motorists traveling on Highway 169 to use County Road 69/Gadwall Road, instead of Highway 68, to access the park office and falls area," Thompson said.

The traditional connection to the falls area of Minneopa State Park from Highway 68 — 547 Avenue, commonly called the Minneopa Cemetery Road — doesn't have a dedicated left-turn lane for westbound traffic on Highway 68.

"This means that left-turning vehicles have a greater exposure to rear-end crashes," Thompson said. "This exposure is compounded with the increased traffic volume on Highway 68, as well as the fact that many motorists making the left turn may be unfamiliar with the area, given the large geographic area that the state park attractions draw from."

For traffic coming from the west on Highway 68, the traditional route to the falls area using the cemetery road/547th Avenue still works fine, so that guide sign is not covered.

"Going east on Highway 68, there is a dedicated right turn lane at 547th Avenue," Thompson said. "This is why eastbound Highway 68 motorists are still directed to turn right at 547th Avenue to access the park office and the falls."

The reader submitting the highway sign questions also wondered who is in charge of making sure signs are accurate and logically placed.

MnDOT may be in charge, but Thompson said the agency appreciates the public's assistance when there's something that needs to be fixed.

"With nearly as many center-line highway miles as there are lakes in the state — 11,694 miles (for interstates, U.S. highways and state highways) vs. 11,842 lakes — MnDOT relies heavily on the public to share their observations with MnDOT staff."

Those observations are best shared through the "Contact MnDOT" button on the MnDOT homepage at www.dot.state.mn.us.

"Doing so allows the opportunity to submit questions or comments which are then routed to the responsible individual for attention — regardless of where the issue might be located across the state."

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, 418 S. Second St., Mankato, MN 56001. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.