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State Highway 23, as shown here north of Willmar near the Sunray Addition, is four lanes most of the way to Interstate 94 near St. Cloud. Area leaders spoke Thursday at the state Capitol about how a four-lane link to the interstate would have a great impact on an area of west central Minnesota that is poised for greater growth. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Bonding funds sought to complete four-lane link on Hwy. 23 from Willmar, Minn., to I-94

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — A small step was taken this week at the Capitol in the long process to secure funding to complete the state Highway 23 four-lane project from Willmar to Interstate 94.

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The House Transportation Finance Committee heard an informational presentation on Thursday from local stakeholders about the need to close the gaps in the corridor.

After the completion last year of the four-lane bypass around Paynesville, there are 14 miles of two-lane highway remaining between Willmar and the interstate, including a seven-mile section between New London and Paynesville.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, who is a member of the Transportation Policy Committee, authored a House bill that asks the state to sell $140 million in bonds to finish the job.

“We know there’s such a huge need and missing links in the state,” said Sawatzky, who said the hearing was used as an opportunity to educate legislators about the local needs and how a four-lane highway is vital for growth in west central Minnesota.

The 20-minute presentation was well-received, said Sawatzky, including testimony from Kandiyohi County Commissioners Roger Imdieke and Doug Reese and Paynesville Mayor Jeff Thompson.

“It was just awesome to have them there,” Sawatzky said. “They really sold Kandiyohi County very well.”

Letters of support were also presented from the county, city of Willmar and the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

The testimony from local officials laid out the efforts taken in Kandiyohi County to improve the infrastructure and economy, including Willmar’s new wastewater treatment facility, new airport and expanding industrial park. The vitality of local businesses, including the MinnWest Technology Campus and Jennie-O Turkey Store, were shown as examples of a community that’s poised for greater growth and in need of a four-lane link, said Sawatzky.

“If we can get a road, we have created jobs,” she said.

Sawatzky, who has teamed up with Republican Rep. Jeff Howe of Rockville to introduce the bill, said the message of the day was that “we’re all in this together.”

That togetherness may include asking people to pony up more in gas taxes.

Because people are driving fewer miles and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, gas tax revenues have not kept pace with the costs for building new roads and maintaining current roads, Sawatzky said.

“We have not taken care of our roads and bridges,” she said. “We don’t need another bridge to fall down.”  

Sawatzky said she is not a fan of raising taxes, but said if people see the “big picture” and the value of transportation links, like Highway 23, they need to be “willing to pay for it” and “pitch in.”

That could include some private-public partnerships along with a potential gas tax increase. “We can’t be status quo,” said Sawatzky, who said she does not care where the money comes from as long as the Highway 23 project gets done.

The bill may not be heard in another House committee this year, but the groundwork has been laid for the 2014 bonding bill.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Sawatzky, adding that she intends to make sure the project is “the squeaky wheel that gets heard.”

Meanwhile, on Friday the Transportation Finance Committee heard a request for $550,000 to build a bus garage for the Kandiyohi Area Transit system in Willmar. Sawatzky said that project is needed and is on the radar of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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