The open house meeting for next year’s massive Highway 23 project between Granite Falls and Cottonwood was held Tuesday evening at the Kilowatt Community Center here in Granite. There was an earlier open house that day in Cottonwood. We had to be out of town during the time of the open house but have heard much about the project and had a chance to offer some input early in the project planning period last year. To say that this much-needed project will be disruptive to our area and to Granite Falls is putting it mildly. To say that it will seriously dent the MnDOT District 8 construction budget is even more of an understatement.

In fact, the project, which is expected to cost around $29 million will eat up most of a single year construction in District 8, which is headquartered in Willmar. In order to keep other much-needed highway projects in our region on track, MnDOT District 8 is budgeting the Highway 23 project over a two-year span. Thankfully the work will move forward this coming year. It is well overdue. The rough and deteriorating road surface has given enough bumpy rides to motorists and truckers to last a lifetime. In fact, there were preliminary plans several years ago to tackle the repaving of Highway 23 from here to Cottonwood in 2015 and later 2017.

That wait was made necessary by rising highway construction costs which increase at a rate of nearly 10 percent, per year and the lack of long-term, ongoing highway funding from several sessions of the Minnesota legislature. The has driven up costs and given us a road surface that is rough, and getting rougher. Highway 23 has become a major route across the state connecting many key locations. Traffic growth back in the 1960s and 70s made upgrading the route a necessity. As one of the few diagonal highways across Minnesota, traffic counts were growing and projected to keep growing. The highway had been woefully under-designed for the traffic it was seeing so decisions were made to rebuild the highway to a higher standard. In our area, that meant relocating it between Clara City and Cottonwood. South of Granite, the new location was graded during 1978 and 1979. It was one of the largest earth-moving projects in the state.

Mathiowetz Construction of Sleepy Eye was awarded the grading contract between Yellow Medicine County Highway 17, at the former town-site of Lorne, and Cottonwood. The big job of grading the highway north of County Highway 17 to Granite, much of it as a four-lane route, over a deep ravine and down into the river valley, was handled by Kern and Tabery, Inc, of Wadena. They also built the grade that carried over 4,000 feet of relocated BN Railway track, which replaced a spindly 95-foot high wooden trestle over that same deep ravine. Kern and Tabery used nearly three dozen pieces of heavy equipment in two shifts (10 hours each) in 1978, which required them to have lighting in the work area. The next year, grading work was finished using a single 12-hour shift. The third year of construction involved full-depth bituminous paving by Granite contractor Mooney’s, Inc. Their contract was for approximately $2 Million and extended the entire length of the new roadway from Granite to Cottonwood.

There’s quite a difference in the cost of paving in the 39 years since the original surface was put in place. This stretch of highway was repaved about 18 years ago and as any driver can tell, is now in need of a new surface. The 2020 project will involve milling off the top half of the bituminous asphalt and paving over the remaining asphalt with new concrete. The project also involves replacing two giant steel culverts with concrete box culverts, constructing a handful of left turn lanes at intersections near Hanley Falls and Cottonwood and a complete reconstruction of the busy Highway 212/23/67/Granite Street intersection in Granite.

That portion of the project will cause the most disruption and will route much of the through traffic away from Granite for a large portion of the project. The intersection redesign will re-align lanes, add turning lanes, new signals and handicap accessibility ramps to sidewalks in the area. The new signals will also feature emergency vehicle pre-emption capability that will allow a safer route for the many ambulance, police and fire truck movements through the intersection.

Unfortunately, as a result of adding a dedicated left-turn lane for southbound Granite St. traffic, the free right-turn lane from southbound Granite Street to west-bound Highway 212 will be removed. However, in its place there will be a standard right-turn lane. We argued for maintaining that free right-turn lane but were told the need is minor and with the left turn lane being constructed, there isn’t much room to accommodate that free right turn lane. As part of the intersection re-build planning, MnDOT staff was required to explore the possibility of installing a roundabout at the intersection in Granite, but as suspected, due to the proximity to the river and the bridge, there wasn’t sufficient room for that design. I suspect that most folks are glad that won’t happen. Roundabouts, if built big enough, can be a safe way to keep traffic moving and I wouldn’t mind seeing one built at a couple of intersections (The Highway 212 and 15 at Brownton comes to mind).

However, many of us will be glad that option didn’t work here. Even though there will be some painful detours and some inconvenience, we’re glad this project is finally going to happen. And we’ll look forward to more of the same in 2021 when Highway 212 between Hawk Creek and Renville is scheduled to get a new concrete surface. That stretch of highway is plenty rough and getting bumpier.

The busiest and most fun week of the year is here. Western Fest has become an occasion that our entire area looks forward to and always draws big crowds. Be sure to take in as many fun Western Fest events as possible and have a fun and safe time. And don’t forget to buy a Western Fest Sweepstakes ticket.