MnDOT proposing changes in Corridors of Commerce process
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is drafting proposed changes for the Legislature to consider on how Corridor of Commerce projects are selected. Members of the Area Transportation Partnership for the Willmar MnDOT district indicated their support for the changes to a program that is making possible the Highway 23 "gap" projects.
WILLMAR — Funding through the state’s Corridors of Commerce program has benefited Minnesota Highway 23 in the Willmar area by providing funding for the so-called North Gap and South Gap projects to complete the four-lane highway to St. Cloud, and also for building passing lanes near Raymond and Clara City.
But the program has also come under fire from state legislators who charged that funding has benefited metropolitan area projects over those of Greater Minnesota.
Changes are being proposed to the program to address this and other concerns. The proposal won support from some of the members of the Willmar District 8 Area Transportation Partnership , who heard those proposed changes at their meeting on Friday.
Area Transportation Partnerships, created to provide greater public involvement in transportation planning, are made up of local elected officials, city representatives, county engineers and staff from each MnDOT district.
The proposal would allow each of the Area Transportation Partnerships in Greater Minnesota to nominate up to three projects for consideration in each funding cycle, according to Patrick Weidemann, director for capital planning and programming for Corridors of Commerce with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s central office.
Weidemann said MnDOT is also looking to better delineate the definition of Greater Minnesota and the metropolitan area. The current draft proposal would continue to split the funding 50/50, but with Greater Minnesota and the metropolitan area competing separately for their 50% share of funding.
The Legislature has allocated $200 million for the upcoming round of Corridors of Commerce projects. The Area Transportation Partnerships representing MnDOT districts in Greater Minnesota would be able to nominate 32 projects for consideration under this scenario. The Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee would be able to nominate or recommend up to 10 projects, while Chisago County would be able to nominate one as part of the metropolitan area projects.
The proposal would also require that 25% of the funding for Greater Minnesota be reserved for projects under $10 million in scope.
Weidemann said the new proposal follows criticism MnDOT received after it awarded four projects in 2017, all of them within 50 linear miles of downtown Minneapolis. The projects included two metropolitan projects on Interstate 494 and I-494/I-35, and two in Greater Minnesota districts: work on U.S. Highway 169 at Elk River and I-94 from St. Michael to Albertville.
It was “very clear from the chorus of complaints that others had interpreted 'regional balance' much differently than we had at MnDOT,” said Weidemann.
He said the scoring system used to award funding under the program tends to favor roadways near growing metropolitan areas because it is based on traffic criteria. The criteria include safety, traffic congestion and freight movement, he explained.
The other challenges facing MnDOT were a requirement that it scope and analyze all projects that were recommended to it for funding and that the process to bring projects for consideration was open to essentially everyone. MnDOT received 173 project nominations for 2017, and had six weeks to scope them and provide cost estimates and assess their benefits. MnDOT had to contract with a consultant in its efforts to analyze and rank all of the projects, some of which were nominated as little more than back-of-napkin scratchings.
Under this new proposal, the individual Area Transportation Partnerships would essentially serve as the screening mechanism to bring the project nominations down to a more manageable number for analysis.
State Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, had been a critic of the 2017 selections. He told Weidemann that he appreciated the ideas being considered for the program, but still had some concerns.
Torkelson said he feels it is important that the legislative perspective be brought into the process, although he also pointed out that he is personally opposed to earmarks. He also suggested that more discussion will be needed on how to delineate what is Greater Minnesota versus the metropolitan area.
The Corridors of Commerce program is very important, he noted. It allows big projects to go forward that might not otherwise.
Completing the North Gap and South Gap to develop a four-lane connection between Willmar and St. Cloud is one of the large projects it makes possible. On that front, District 8 engineer Jon Huseby said there was good news. Bids for the North Gap were recently awarded for approximately $41.75 million, or below the $48.5 million estimate.
The Corridors of Commerce program is providing a total of $101.5 million for the entire project. The favorable bid for the North Gap “gives us confidence that we will be able to make the overall budget without a major problem,” said Huseby.
“We delivered it right on schedule and it came in under budget,” said the district engineer. MnDOT is planning a groundbreaking event for the work in the spring, he added.