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Big changes to how money will be divvied up for road projects

Jarrett Hubbard, senior planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8 office in Willmar, displays a map Thursday during an informational program about federal funding for transportation projects. New federal transportation legislation puts the focus on the national highway system and makes it a priority for funding, Hubbard said. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — The pot of federal money Minnesota will receive for transportation in the next few years isn’t expected to change much, but changes in how that money will be divvied up will mean more money for roads on the “national highway system” and less for other state and local projects.

At the same time, the state will be required to maintain all roads that receive federal funding at a certain level of quality or risk a penalty of decreased funds in the future.

“Sounds like a disaster to me,” said Kandiyohi County Commissioner Doug Reese during a meeting Thursday in Willmar where the draft Area Transportation Improvement Plan through 2017 was reviewed.

Drawing attention to the catch-22, Reese said if the state receives less money to maintain local highways, those roads will deteriorate faster, and if the federal quality benchmarks are not met, the state will receive even less money to fix the roads.

“If it’s falling apart, you get less funding. It doesn’t make sense,” said Reese.

New federal transportation legislation puts the focus on the national highway system and makes it a priority for funding, said Jarrett Hubbard, senior planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8 office in Willmar.

That system includes interstate highways and many regional state highways, like state Highway 23, and U.S. Highways 12 and 212.

Hubbard said roads that are not in the national highway system will draw money from “another pot, which will have even less money in it.”

Some of those roads that were not on the map that Hubbard displayed to the group of county commissioners and highway engineers had a few missing links, like the section of state Highway 7 that runs through Kandiyohi and Meeker counties.

Although much of that highway did make it onto the national highway system, a large section vanished from the map between state Highways 23 and 15.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said the road is so rough now he “won’t drive a tractor on it,” and with less money it will get even worse.

Hubbard said there is an appeals process to get a road named to the national highway system but because there is a cap on the number of miles, that means another Minnesota road would have to be removed.

Because of the emphasis on maintaining benchmark standards for roads, Hubbard said there will be more money spent on maintenance and less on expansion,

In response to concerns that highways in the 12-county area of District 8 could deteriorate and not meet standards with limited funds, Hubbard said MnDOT can shift funds from one district to another to meet those needs.

Meeting the highway performance standards could be quirky, however, because each state will set its own benchmarks.

Because Minnesota has higher road quality standards than many other states, Hubbard said state transportation officials have been warned to consider lowering those standards to “something we can actually meet.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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