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Highway 23 Coalition discuss goals, concerns for 2019

Lake Area Review / March 30, 2019

The Highway 23 Coalition held its 2019 Annual Membership Meeting on Friday, March 23 at The 400 Club in Rockville.

The featured speaker was Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who briefed the Coalition on Gov. Tim Walz's proposed gas tax and how the funds would be allocated.

According to Highway 23 Coalition Secretary/Treasurer Aaron Backman, who doubles as the Executive Director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar EDC, the meeting provided a "big opportunity" to actually talk with the Commissioner about the projects.

DFL State Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, who chairs the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, then briefed the room of the inner workings of the transportation committee.

Sen. Andrew Lang, who is on his first year in the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, followed. He described Highway 23 as the "economic lifeline to rural Minnesota" and commended the Coalition for the strides they have already made since former Gov. Mark Dayton shared a boat with the "concrete guy" (JME Companies Vice President Kelly Morrell) during the2018 Fish Opener. However, he expressed concerns about the governor's proposed gas tax, explaining how the funds will not go strictly to roads and bridges.

Along with approving its 2019 members, the Coalition also highlighted its growing membership, which now includes 14 cities that extend from Pipestone to Fley, 10 counties, 64 businesses, and around 100 individual members.

The Coalition also provided members an opportunity to familiarize themselves on its priority projects for 2019.

Proposals for priority projects started in the fall, where members submitted 32 proposals. "This is the final four," said Backman.

The most pressing priority for the Coalition is a proposed roundabout in the City of Foley and a Preferred route Safety Study that extends from Foley to Milaca. Together they are estimated to cost $2 million.

Foley sees Highway 23 go from a three-lane, featuring a center lane, to a two-lane and has a narrow shoulder, complemented with curves and trees that can cause blind spots on the road. The Coalition hopes the proposed roundabout will encourage drivers to slow down as they drive through town.

The 11-mile stretch of highway between Foley and Milaca saw seven fatalities over the past two years, making it the most "dangerous" section of Highway 23, according to Backman.

Consequently, the Coalition proposes a four-lane highway connecting the two cities as the potential solution. But expanding the current highway, which passes through the town of both Foley and Milaca, would require purchasing huge swaths of private property -- likely proving to costly to enact. Instead, the Coalition is asking MnDOT to conduct a Preferred Route Safety Study to determine the best route for the proposed four-lane road. 

In Willmar, the Coalition is proposing to build overpass for CSAH (County State-Aid Highway System) 55 that would connect the new interstate at Highway 23 and County Road 5 over the BNSF railroad -- thus tying the new Willmar Railroad Wye Project with a direct connection to the city's industrial park. 

The estimated cost for the project is $7.8 million, but Kandiyohi County feels strongly about the project and has pledged to donate $3.9 million, contingent on whether or not the State agrees to match the funds.

Though Highway 23 is the obvious point of concern for the Coalition, in Clara City the intersection of Highway 7 and 23 takes equal priority. 

The south end of Highway 7 goes over railroad tracks, and close to the Highway 23 intersection there is a curve. 

The Coalition would like to see a study to determine what changes could be made to enhance the safety of the intersection. The Coalition's Board approved providing $5,000 toward a local match as required by MnDOT. Both Chippewa County and Clara City conformed they would match the contribution. 

Finally, the Coalition is looking to continue the Highway's four-lane infrastructure by adding a 4.5-mile extension from the City of Marshall to the City of Green Valley -- bringing the highway closer to connecting with Highway 212. The project would cost an estimated $27 million.

One project that was excluded from the priority list was adding two off-ramps where the Highway meets Interstate 94. The proposal has since been adopted as a priority project for MnDOT District 3, thus being removed from the Coalition's priorities.

The Coalition has been in talks with legislators about their priorities and, though the projects likely won't be included in any individual bill, they hope to be included in the annual Bonding Bill, which is expected to make its way through the legislature at the end of the legislative session.

The Coalition is lobbying for net positive funds for the proposed projects, as opposed to net neutral funds which, according to Backman, would equal just maintenance as opposed to the desired improvements.

"What the Coalition has done is that it's adopted a motion that says the Highway 23 Coalition supports sustained, comprehensive funding," Backman said.

Though Backman acknowledges the political hurdles of a DFL House and a Republican Senate he remains optimistic about the proposed projects, stating, "I'm feeling good about it."

Backman still hasn't received word that either Land or Rep. Dave Baker will be supportive of the measure though Lang speaking at the event signals to Backman he could be sympathetic to their cause. "I'm hoping that they'll be supportive of what we're trying to propose," said Backman.

On the home front, a bill to provide $105 million to make Highway 23 a continuous four-lane road from St. Cloud to New London recently took effect.

MnDOT District 8 has hired Isthmus Engineering Inc., out of St. Paul, to provide transportation design services (final design, public engagement, permits, etc.) for the northern gap (Richmond to Paynesville). The necessary land acquisition begins this year. Construction on the north gap is expected to begin in 2022.