The news wasn’t particularly good at the Regional Development Commis-sion’s annual transportation open house in Appleton last week. MnDOT representatives were on hand to share the state agency’s plans for road improvements in our area and they shared the fact that there wasn’t nearly enough money to move ahead with many long-awaited repair and maintenance projects.
That’s really not new information but, looking at the list of projects, it’s obvious that MnDOT only has enough money to take on a small fraction of the much-needed work with a few left-over dollars to apply some bandaids here and there, to our crumbling roads. Oh, to be sure, there will be some road work in our area in the near future. Hwy. 23 between Clara City and Willmar will get a thin overlay starting in May and starting in mid-June, Hwy. 7 will receive a heftier surface upgrade east of Clara City over to Hwy. 71, where construction of a new traffic roundabout will replace the dangerous traffic signals at the intersection of those two highways.
And, in Monte, the bridge that carries the Hwys. 7 and 29 over the TC&W Railroad will be replaced. Also, a bridge will be replaced north of Gluek. That’s it for the nearby area. There are some other smaller projects scattered around the region but nothing big. And in the coming years, it gets skimpier. Minnesota’s government, including MnDOT, operates on a fiscal year (FY) that spans July 1 to June 30. That means July 1 of 2017 will actually be in FY 2018.
In FY 2018, there is a small resurfacing project on Hwy. 67 south of Echo and a bridge replacement north east of Canby, along with some work on Hwys. 19 and 71 in Redwood Falls and on some intersection redesign on Hwy. 23 near Marshall. There’s also the large railroad bypass project on the west end of Willmar that’s mostly funded by a federal grant, the BNSF Railroad and MnDOT funds.
That will involve realigning of Hwys. 12 and 40 and building bridges that will carry those highways over the new rail connection. In FY 2019, Hwy. 212 will receive a new surface between Granite and Monte, along with some culvert upgrades. It’s always a challenge to pass a slower vehicle on Hwy. 212 west of Granite so I asked if MnDOT could look into adding a passing lane somewhere on this stretch of road but there is no money for that now.
I also asked about the possibility of eliminating some of the no passing zones, particularly between Granite and the Wegdahl corner. Shaving down some of the high spots and filling in some of the low dips would increase visibility and make it safe to pass in a handful of areas. The MnDOT folks said they would check into that, but there’s scant funding and much other work to do.
Work in FY 2020 includes resurfacing on Hwy. 67 through Clarkfield, including some sidewalk upgrades along that road through town. MnDOT also starts setting aside money that year for replacing the very rough surface on Hwy. 23 between Granite and Cottonwood with a new concrete surface. At an estimated $19.5 million it is the largest MnDOT-funded project on their five-year plan list.
That project, after first being programmed for 2015, will finally get underway in FY 2021, when the remainder of the money is set aside. That one single project will take up most of MnDOT’s Willmar district’s budget for those two years. It’s noteworthy that the current five-year plan doesn’t include any work to repair or replace the very bumpy surface on Highway 212, east of Hawk Creek to Renville. That work apparently isn’t programmed until FY 2024. I’m not sure how that rough ride will last another seven years.
Meanwhile there could be some more bandaids applied to patch things together until there is finally some money to make the real improvements. Beyond that, at this time, there are no other improvements programmed for Hwy. 212 from here to Glencoe and beyond. Worse yet, there is no funding for safety projects on Hwy. 212, like turn lanes, more passing lanes and for much-needed additional four-lane construction on each side of Cologne, which is one of oldest stretches of that already over-crowded highway. Will something change, in the near future, to move these long-awaited projects up on the calendar?
There are several proposals in the legislature, nearly all of which lack enough funding to address the needs that are out there. Most of those proposals shift sales tax money from the sale of auto parts and repairs and leases into the highway trust fund and away from the state’s general fund where it’s used for other programs and needs. Unlike the current gas tax, which is truly a user fee, these funds would not be constitutionally guaranteed and thus do not provide the long-term dedicated, guaranteed funding that is needed for these many large projects.
The proposals are also full of one-time money that does help get a handful of projects underway but unfortunately doesn’t provide the money needed for long-term ongoing state-wide improvements. Perhaps, most significantly, most of the transportation funding the proposals take aim at all forms of transit, particularly in the Twin Cities. That almost certainly ensures that there will be too many “no” votes in the legislature to make any meaningful highway improvement funding happen this year, once again. We need some leadership with this and we need it now.
Hiding from the responsibility of raising the necessary taxes (remember, the gas tax is really a user fee) is no way to move ahead. Highways cost money. They are not free. Most of the current proposals, for good reasons, do not buy better roads. They buy ”no” votes at the state capitol and that gets us nowhere, while we are stuck in traffic in the Twin Cities and driving on crappy, unsafe roads in Greater Minnesota.