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MnDOT confirms Safety Study at Highway 23 Coalition meeting

Lakes Area Review / Macklin Caruso on October 26, 2019

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will move forward with a Safety Study at the intersection of Highway 23 and Highway 7 in Clara City.

The study was lobbied heavily by the Highway 23 Coalition, who defined it as one of their four priority projects earlier this year and was officially confirmed by MnDOT commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher, at the Coalition's membership meeting in Granite Falls on Oct. 18.

The membership meeting was held at Prairie's Edge Casino Resort, just outside Granite Falls. In attendance were officials from Kandiyohi County, New London and Spier, both area state legislators Rep. Dave Baker and Sen. Andrew Lang, along with numerous area businesses. The featured guest speaker was Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. 

"This Highway 23 Coalition, as the Senate Majority Leader knows, is a vey powerful coalition with lots of great connections diagonally in the state," Kelliher said in her opening remarks. "There are other Coalitions in the state but I will say I think none are as mature and really as effective, frankly, as the Highway 23 Coalition, so I want to acknowledge that today." 

Shortly after her opening statement Kelliher offered greeting rom MnDOT and announced that MnDOT would go forth with the Safety Study.

In Clara City, the south end of Highway 7 crosses railroads tracks, and near Highway 23 there is a curve. The Coalition lobbied for the study to determine what changes could be made to enhance the safety of the intersection. Earlier in the year the Coalition approved $5,000 to complete the study, as required by MnDOT as part of a local match program. Additionally, both Chippewa County and Clara City confirmed the would further match the contribution. 

"Ultimately, what transportation is about is connections. It's connecting family, friends, and community," she continued. "You care about your fellow community members getting to and from safely, you care about your fellow community members being able to make a good living and (to) be able to be successful, it's about those community connections. Whether you are going to work, or you are going to church or whether you are going out there to get to the next soccer game or baseball game or community activity, it's about those community connections, that's ultimately what transportation is about."

She proceeded to thank Gazelka for all the work he has done for transportation. Both Gazelka, who leads the GOP-run Senate by a slim majority, and Kelliher who serves under DFL governor Tim Walz, were engaged in a highly contentious battle for transportation funding this last legislative session. "We get in the heat of the battle I know in the legislative session ... we sometimes don't say 'thank you' as a department," she said

During the 2018 Governor's Fishing Opener on Green Lake, Gazelka was in the boat when fishing guide Kelly Morrell, the vice president of Concrete Products of New London, asked then-Gov. Mark Dayton for the funding to turn Highway 23 into a continuous four-lane highway from New London to St. Cloud, to which Dayton confirmed the project.

"The business of politics is really all about relationships," Gazelka said in his opening statement. It's a matter of figuring out how to work together, or not. The Highway 23 coalition, according to Gazelka, is an example to government working together. 

"We had people from a community working together and everything just came together in a perfect storm to actually make something good happen," he said.

He thanked Kelliher, noting that he felt she was a good pick from Walz, citing both her history as a legislator and lobbyist, and her passion for transportation.

Gazelka noted that large public transportation projects seldom get done in a timely manner, referencing pending projects to both Highway 23 and 14, and said that it only happens when different factions of government have built relationship.

"Sometimes you just see projects the you go 'why in the world are we not getting this done?' This was one, Highway 14 was the other one," he said.

He noted that though the state Legislature was prone to partisan feuds, Minnesota's government continues to work more efficiently than the rest of the country, in spite of being the only state government with a split legislature -- with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House. He touted this year's Hands-Free Law -- which forbids drivers from using their cell phones when driving -- as an example of bi-partisanship. 

"I want to thank you all for what you did, because it was this group -- and Kelly (Morrell), you in particular -- that figured out a way to highlight how important it was and that got it over the finish line." 

Following Gazelka's speech, the forum opened up to questions from the audience.

"What are we going to do to recognize the gap between not passing the gas tax the governor wants, and funding road projects and the safety projects we want to do in the state?" an audience member asked Kelliher and Gazelka.

During this year's legislative session, the GOP-controlled senate landed a decisive blow to the governor's proposed gas tax, which was intended to fund road and bridge projects.

Gazelka cited a concern for the rising number of electric cars in the state as a reason for not passing the gas tax. However, three years ago the Legislature passed a sales tax on auto-parts and re-appropriated the revenue from the general fund to be specifically used for roads and bridges. Between that and the funds appropriated from the bonding bill, Gazelka estimated that they would raise $5-6 billion for roads and bridges over a 10-year period.

"regardless, we have to use our money wisely," he said.

He indicated that he would be open to increasing the auto-part sales tax to meet an increasing road and bridge budget. 

However, Kelliher warned of a looming $18 billion dollar gap in road and bridge funding if additional revenue isn't soon provided. 

The way funding is currently appropriated, MnDOT can only afford to maintain road bridges, as opposed to providing actual upgrades, according to Kelliher.

Transportation needs more more, she said, and both Democrats and Republicans need to acknowledge that.

"We need a multi-pronged solution here."