MANKATO - Advocates for the long-sought Highway 14 four-lane expansion project criticized the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Monday during its final public hearing for its 20-year State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP), which does not include the project.
However, the hearing signaled other options for Highway 14 and a chance for MnDOT to complete the project if new funding is found.
The new MnSHIP, which is updated every four years, covers specific projects through 2017 and more generalized priorities for the next 20 years. The plan focuses on prioritizing money on maintaining existing highway infrastructure and minimizing how many new projects are started. This emphasis is necessary because MnDOT faces a $12 billion deficit over the next 20 years.
Brown County and the New Ulm area have several roadwork projects in the plan: A $4.3 million mill and overlay with CPR diamond grinding for Highway 14 from the eastern side of Sleepy Eye to the western side of New Ulm; a $3.9 million mill and overlay project on State Highway 4 from its intersection with State Highway 68 to the northern Brown County/Nicollet County border. The two New Ulm river bridges along Highway 14 will be replaced for $43.3 million in the upcoming years.
Highway 14 advocates have focused on the 20-year plan because they feel that MnDOT's failure to include completion of the entire Highway 14 expansion signals that the state has no interest in solving the highway's problems. Advocates are seeking the four-lanes to expand commerce throughout the highway corridor and to tackle serious safety flaws. The roadway has a fatal crash rate three times the state average for similar highways.
Additionally, Highway 14 advocates joined the concerns of a representative from 1st District Rep. Tim Walz about the project losing eligibility for any windfall in federal transportation funding if it is not listed as a state priority.
A segment from North Mankato to Nicollet is scheduled for a $19 million four-lane expansion because Gov. Mark Dayton personally made MnDOT include it last year. This portion is set to be completed by 2018. The remaining Highway 14 portions requiring four lanes are New Ulm to Nicollet and Dodge Center to Owatonna.
Despite MnDOT currently giving no indication that the rest of Highway 14 will make it into the finalized plan in September, there was some positive news at the hearing.
MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle said that the plan does not reflect MnDOT's vision if it had adequate funding. The presentation indicated that if MnDOT received new funding, it would designate several corridor projects as priorities. Because the Minnesota Legislature is planning to tackle transportation funding in 2014, the passage of a new funding source could mean Highway 14 is added into the state projects.
Separately, MnDOT is also nearing the start of the newly passed "Corridors of Commerce" program. The Highway 14 expansion was pointed to repeatedly as the key example of highway corridors the program will target.
Because Highway 14 is anticipated to fair favorably in "Corridors of Commerce," the expansion could hypothetically be entirely funded if Zelle gives approval.
The program will establish guidelines by Aug. 29, will communicate with local partners on projects by September and will present a finalized project list by winter.
For the 20-year plan, MnDOT is still accepting public comment through Wednesday at via e-mail at email@example.com. Letters can be sent to Ryan Wilson, MnDOT Office of Capital Programs and Performance Measures, 395 John Ireland Blvd, MS 440, St. Paul, MN 55155
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)