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Thinking 'outside of the box' for transportation designs

Thomas Sorel, Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation, speaks during a meeting Friday at the Willmar Airport. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Unconventional road designs, community collaboration and local funding may be part of the package of solutions for Minnesota's growing highway transportation needs.

That vision, and some details for making it happen, was laid out Friday at a meeting in Willmar that drew regional representatives from local governments, businesses and economic development entities along the highway 12 and 23 corridors.

The way people view transportation and the way it is funded, is changing, said Tom Sorel, Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner.

Transportation is connected to the global economy, Sorel said, yet communities view transportation as a personal "quality of life" issue that affects their housing, health, education and economic future.

That's no secret to residents of Greater Minnesota who have been lobbying for decades for a four-lane highway that links rural communities to the metro area.

But Sorel said the old model of taking construction plans from the book and building new highways throughout the state isn't financially sustainable for the future.

Instead of using traditional designs -- like an overpass that can cost millions of dollars -- alternative designs like roundabouts, signs, super-two passing lanes and rumble strips can be used at a fraction of the cost and still meet the transportation objectives, he said.

Using less money on one project means there's money left over to do another project, he said.

The unusual intersection design on North Business 71 in Willmar by the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building was cited as an example of an inexpensive alternative to the traditional highway design that has succeeded in improving safety.

Part of MnDOT's new vision is a Corridor Investment Management Strategy that allows MnDOT and highway corridor partners to communicate about the specific needs and come up with new ideas to meet them.

"We have to think outside the box," said Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, who serves as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and organized Friday's meeting.

Sorel said the old way of getting money for highways is also changing.

In the past corridor groups, like the Highway 12 and Highway 23 corridor task forces, went hat-in-hand to St. Paul and Washington, D.C., to get money for specific projects.

"There are no earmarks to be gotten," Sorel said.

While those past earmarks helped advance the state Highway 23 four-lane project from Willmar to St. Cloud, MnDOT officials say it will be many more years before there's money available to finish the two segments on that highway that are still two lanes.

That delay is especially frustrating to businesses that see a four-lane link to the Twin Cities as vital for economic development.

Gimse presented a proposal for a new way to generate money locally that could be leveraged with MnDOT funds to get community corridor projects completed quicker.

He's suggesting a variety of "tools" including options for local governments to have joint power authority to implement a local wheelage tax, or local sales tax to generate money to use on state highway projects.

Other funding options include having local governments issue bonds or having the private sector pay part or all of the cost of a project with their pay-off being new business revenues and value of the new private development.

Acknowledging it might be a hard sell to convince taxpayers to approve a local sales tax for a state highway project, Gimse said there are advantages to this method because the money that's raised locally is used on a project that will benefit the local community.

Revenue generated by the state gas tax, said Gimse, goes to St. Paul and may not come back to local communities.

Raising money locally means the community "has skin in the game" and allows people to see what their investment is buying, Gimse said.

Gimse said he intends to present his plan to the statewide Transportation Finance Advisory Committee. Gimse is one of the 19-members on the committee along with Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen of Lake Lillian.

Madsen said he likes the idea of "common sense" planning, prioritizing and implementing transportation plans with collaboration from communities along highway corridors.

But he said he's frustrated with partisan politics when it comes to funding transportation and that he won't support any proposal that fractures the state between rural and urban communities.

Several people at the meeting expressed support for increased communication between communities on highway corridors and said businesses would be eager to participate. One individual thought the legislature should have increased the gas tax to generate additional transportation funding.

"There is no silver bullet to this problem," said Sorel. "It needs to be a collection of solutions."

MnDOT is hosting another meeting Oct. 4 in Willmar to discuss Minnesota's 20-year State Highway Investment Plan. That meeting will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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