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Hwy. 40 failing to meet needs: Chippewa County, ag producers seek improvements

A Dooley's Petroleum truck travels along state Highway 40 with other commuters Tuesday near Willmar. The Chippewa County Commissioners, farmers and other businesses that rely on Highway 40 are urging the Minnesota Department of Transportation to upgrade the highway due to safety and economic concerns.

MONTEVIDEO — Narrow, steep shoulders and springtime weight restrictions combine to make one of the region's most important farm-to-market highways unsafe and, all too often, an economic choke point.

That's the message that Chippewa County and producers relying on Minnesota Highway 40 delivered as they urged the Minnesota Department of Transportation to upgrade the 40-mile segment from Milan to Willmar.

"It isn't meeting our needs safety-wise,'' Chippewa County Commissioner Jeffrey Lopez told Jon Huseby, MnDOT district engineer, at the County Board's meeting Tuesday in Montevideo.

Nearly two dozen representatives of crop and livestock farms, as well as the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, Riverview Dairy, Transystems, CHS Transport, and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association attended the meeting along with State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg.

Huseby had some good news to deliver. Starting in 2018, MnDOT will not post a spring weight restriction on the highway for the foreseeable future. Recent testing showed that about 80 percent of the highway between Milan and Willmar would be able to withstand 10-ton traffic loads during the spring. The heavier loads would pose a risk of early deterioration to about 15 to 20 percent of the miles, he said.

An overlay project completed two years ago may have helped "just enough'' to allow MnDOT to end spring weight restrictions on the highway, he explained. The springtime limits are an economic burden to producers, especially to entities such as dairies which ship daily, year-round.

Safety trumped the concerns voiced at the meeting. Kyle Peterson and Loren Molenaar were among the farmers expressing concerns about the hazards presented by the highway's narrow and steep shoulders. They spoke of too many "near misses'' as trucks, cars, farm machinery and school buses share an open, wind-swept highway notorious for winter storms.

They urged that MnDOT look at the possibility of widening the shoulders and reducing the bank slope, even if such a project is done outside of rebuilding the road bed. That's not common, but Huseby said MnDOT was open to considering such a project in this case.

There is one major challenge: A back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates it would cost $400,000 per mile to widen the shoulders. That would make it an $8 million project just to widen the stretch of Highway 40 from the intersection with state Highway 29 to Willmar, Huseby said.

MnDOT's current, long-range construction plans do not include rebuilding Highway 40. Rebuilding rural, two-lane roadways costs roughly $1 million per mile, making it a $40 million proposition to do the entire length.

Huseby and Lindsey Knutson, planner with MnDOT's Willmar office, said engineers are analyzing the material in the highway to determine when the "tipping point'' will be reached that would necessitate rebuilding the highway.

But any sort of major work — with one exception — is many years distant due to the lack of funding. The exception is a plan to replace the small bridge near the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative piling site in about two years.

Huseby said state transportation funding has limited most of the state's road work to preservation only.

"There are many other Highway 40s'' across the state, said Huseby in reference to transportation needs.

He asked those present to help him tell the story of the need to invest in rural highways to carry the freight so critical to the regional economy. He said that traffic volume and crash histories are the biggest factors in determining how transportation dollars are spent. Rural highways such as Highway 40 have relatively low traffic volumes and lower accident rates, he said.

To emphasize the importance of the road, the Chippewa County Commissioners asked Huseby to consider the possibility of a "turnback." In such a case, MnDOT could tap a state fund to rebuild the road and turn it over to the county for long-term maintenance.

While the commissioners are hesitant to take on those expenses, they said there is an urgency to address the needs. Lopez said he's fearful the needed roadwork won't happen in his lifetime.

"But you're a young man,'' quipped Board Chairman Jim Dahlvang. "Exactly my point,'' said Lopez in response.

Chippewa County has upgraded its paved roads intersecting Highway 40 from the south to year-round, 10-ton capability, and it will no longer post spring weight restrictions on those roadways beginning in 2018 as well.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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