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Willmar considers joining the Highway 23 Coalition

File Photo / Tribune The Willmar City Council discussed joining the Highway 23 Coalition, which is trying to push state and federal lawmakers to fund transportation project to make Highway 23 from Willmar to St. Cloud completely four-lane.

WILLMAR — For years the businesses and governments along the Highway 23 corridor have been pushing to make the highway completely four-lane between Willmar and Interstate 94. And while there are only two segments of two-lane left totaling 15 miles, the need is greater than ever.

"Willmar is one of the largest outstate cities in Minnesota without continuous four-lane access. That four-lane connection is essential to west central Minnesota's economy and workforce," said Aaron Backman, Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission director.

The Highway 23 Coalition, a group made up of over 30 stakeholders, is ramping up its efforts, after nearly two decades of supporting the Willmar-to-I94 development. The reorganized coalition will work to develop the entire Highway 23 corridor from Marshall to I-94.

At Monday's city council meeting Backman officially asked for the city to join the coalition as a member.

"The more partners we bring in, the more impact we'll have," Backman said.

The city can join the coalition at two levels - Supporter Level for $2,000 or Advocate Level for $3,000. The membership dues will help fund the coalition as it meets with lawmakers in both St. Paul and Washington D.C. The money will help pay for marketing, a transportation study and website development.

"It is really needed for the Willmar business community," Mayor Marv Calvin said.

The newly re-energized Highway 23 Coalition will also be better able to get its point across when speaking with legislators. At recent visits to St. Paul and Washington D.C., coalition members found they were not as organized as other transportation coalitions asking for funds and support.

"The one thing that was made abundantly clear is Minnesota is a big state. The most attention goes to the groups with the best representation and the most organized. That is how these projects work at the state level," Councilor Andrew Plowman said.

State Representative Dave Baker, who attended the city council meeting to give his legislative update, said St. Paul's job is to get the Corridors of Commerce fund funded, which can then be utilized for projects like Highway 23.

"Now we are going to keep putting the pressure on MnDOT, so Highway 23 is at the top of the list," Baker said.

Baker, who has met and helped the Highway 23 Coalition when meeting with other transportation players, feels the coalition is going in the right direction when it comes to being more organized.

"I know our Highway 23 Coalition is getting very active again. That helps us a lot to make the noise with MnDOT. They are the ones that make the decisions," Baker said.

The remaining two-lane sections of Highway 23 between Willmar and St. Cloud is separated into two projects. The south gap is seven miles between New London and Paynesville, while the north gap is another eight miles between Paynesville and Richmond. The total cost for completing both gaps into four lanes is estimated to cost anywhere between $124 million to $168 million. Baker said there could be funding announcements in the next few years for those projects.

"We are shovel ready on the south end. We should be able to see some things moving soon," Baker said.

The Willmar City Council will consider joining the Highway 23 Coalition at the next council meeting.

"This is something we've been working on for a long time," Calvin said.

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