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Highway 23 Coalition seeks broader focus

West Central Tribune / Carolyn Lange on July 13, 2018

WILLMAR — Even though funding has been secured to complete the final two legs of the Highway 23 four-lane between Willmar and Interstate 94, the coalition of regional businesses and government entities that fought to obtain that funding has no intention of going away.

On the contrary, organizers say it's hoped the 91-member coalition will expand to include community members as far north as Duluth and as far south as Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

"Yes, we were able to get funding for the two gaps, but we're not done yet," said Aaron Backman, director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

Backman, who is also secretary/treasurer of the Highway 23 Coalition, said the success of the coalition's efforts has gotten the attention of other communities on the corridor where construction is also needed.

"We are looking at other projects up and down the corridor that we think also need attention and improvements," Backman said Thursday at the EDC Operations Board meeting.

"We've got this momentum going and we want to continue," he said.

During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Backman said, Minnesota's congressional delegation encouraged the coalition to expand its scope to a border-to-border focus. To accompany that focus, the coalition intends to seek a freight corridor designation for Highway 23 that would open the door to federal funding.

Funding had been sought for years by a coalition of local community leaders to complete a four-lane route on Highway 23 from Willmar to the interstate.

About a year ago that coalition was formalized with a board of directors, paid memberships and a plan for winning state and federal support for completing the two gaps in the four-lane route.

It paid off.

At the end of the legislative session this spring, new money was added to the state's Corridors of Commerce transportation program in the bonding bill to construct two four-lane gaps — seven miles between New London and Paynesville and nine miles between Paynesville and Richmond.

Backman said he's making presentation to existing members, including Willmar and Kandiyohi County, and hopes they will renew their financial commitment to the coalition.

He's also spoken to the Benton County Commissioners seeking their support and said representatives from Duluth have also expressed interest, he said.

"We are excited about the possibility that the membership could be expanded to address some of the critical needs along our corridor," Backman said.

As he held up a newspaper article about the recent death of two motorcyclists killed on a two-lane segment of Highway 23 near Hawick, Backman said, "This reminds us why we're doing what we're doing."

It will take a while for the four-lane gaps between Willmar and I-94 to be done.

The environmental review for both segments is already completed but it will take about three years to finish the next steps, which include purchasing property along the route for the additional lanes and completing the detailed design.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, construction of one segment will begin in 2022 and the second segment will begin in 2024.