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MnDOT: Funding for environmental study first step toward closing gaps in Hwy. 23 four-lane

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle talks about the state funding available to begin environmental analysis of a project to expand the two remaining two-lane sections of Highway 23 between Willmar and St. Cloud. (Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf)

WILLMAR — The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Corridors of Commerce program has set aside $1.5 million to do the environmental study of the remaining two-lane sections of Highway 23 between Willmar and St. Cloud.

The appropriation is a first step toward having a project ready for construction when funding becomes available, but it will take four years or longer to get to construction.

MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and other state officials announced the appropriation Monday afternoon at the Willmar Municipal Airport. About 20 people attended the announcement, many of them city and county officials. Zelle also attended the groundbreaking for an Interstate 94 improvement project between Rogers and St. Michael.

Bob Dols of Willmar, who has led a task force on Highway 23, said he had been involved in the effort to improve the road for more than 15 years.

While the dollar amount may not sound that large, the environmental review is an important step toward a project that’s “shovel ready,” Dols said.

Most of that 53-mile segment of Highway 23 is already four-lane, but two sections of two-lane road remain just north and south of Paynesville.

“In Minnesota, we like to finish what we start,” Dols said. “We’ve got these two seven-mile gaps; let’s get them done.”

The Legislature created the Corridors of Commerce program in 2013 by setting aside $300 million which becomes available today with the beginning of the state’s new fiscal year. The money will fund 10 projects, including five that start this year.

The Legislature added additional funds this year, including $6.5 million earmarked for rural Minnesota. The environmental study is part of that funding.

Jon Huseby, district engineer for MnDOT’s District 8, outlined the estimated costs of the entire Highway 23 project.

Total costs, including design, right-of-way acquisition and construction could be $50 million to $70 million for the southern gap and $75 million to $98 million for the northern gap. Construction costs would be $40 million to $50 million south of Paynesville and $50 million to $65 million north of the town. The northern project is more complex and has more soil correction needed, he said.

The environmental study is the first steps toward a completed road, Huseby said.

After the environmental study will come design, right-of-way acquisition and construction.

Huseby said the environmental phase is a crucial phase that will lay the groundwork for the later parts of the project. The project is important for the area, he said, as traffic volume is growing on Highway 23, and the change from four lanes to two can be dangerous.

Huseby introduced Dols as a tireless supporter of the project.

Willmar has a dozen wholesale businesses that depend on having good roads, Dols said, and the city’s new industrial park could be at a disadvantage when competing with cities that have four-lane roads.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Policy Committee, praised the Legislature and area legislators for their support of the Corridors of Commerce plan.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, also attended the announcement.

“Willmar’s always been a place where you’ve had good transportation representation in the Legislature,” Hornstein said.

“It’s a safety issue along with a commerce issue,” Sawatzky said. She joked that she is known to her colleagues as “3M” because she often asks for $3 million for Highway 23.

Koenen said he was pleased to see more spent on Minnesota’s roads. He’s a truck driver when the Legislature is not in session, he said, and he sees many roads in Minnesota and surrounding states. The state’s roads don’t compare as favorably with other states as they once did, he said.

The process to get to construction will last years. Even if funding for the project were not an issue, MnDOT could be ready to start construction in 2018 for the southern gap and in 2019 for the northern section. Being able to have some of the preliminary work done should help keep Highway 23 on the priority list so it can progress as money is available, Zelle said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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