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Officials look at expanding Paul Bunyan Expressway in northern Minn.

BEMIDJI, Minn. —The future expansion of a major northern Minnesota travel corridor was the focus of a Bemidji meeting on Tuesday.

Personnel from communities along major travel corridors north and south of Bemidji met with District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, here to discuss the future of State Highway 371.

The highway, specifically between Little Falls and Bemidji, has been a point of discussion at the local and state levels for more than two decades. The matter revolves around the idea of expanding the highway from two-lanes to four.

Since 2000, the highway has been expanded to four-lanes from Little Falls through the Brainerd and Baxter region on the way to Nisswa. More recently, another section of the highway, from Nisswa to Jenkins, was also expanded.

Rich Siegert, a longtime proponent of the expansion, referred to as the Paul Bunyan Expressway by advocates, said Tuesday that a four-lane highway can create safer travel, relieve congestion and help local economies along the corridor.

Siegert, whose ultimate goal is to have four-lanes all the way to Cass Lake, also said the highway expansion would create greater access from southern Minnesota, specifically those driving north from the Twin Cities.

The idea for expanding the highway to four-lanes has been met with opposition, though, with some based on the notion that alternate highways are better suited for expansion and others concerned about the effect it can have on communities, such as Walker, along the way.

"I don't have a position on this road. My position is to get people talking to make sure we do it right," Bliss said. "Nothing is going to go forward next year. There will not be any legislation for this in the 2018 session."

Bliss' comments follow a 2017 session in the Legislature where he drafted a bill to examine upgrades for Highway 371, which would've conducted a study to determine the feasibility of improving the highway from Jenkins to Cass Lake. However, Bliss announced in May that he put the legislation on hold.

Moving forward, Bliss is taking a different approach, creating a work group to help form a consensus on the best options. On Tuesday, Bliss took suggestions on what communities should be represented in the eight-to-10 person group, and responses included Bemidji, Walker, the Minnesota Association of Townships and other municipalities both north and south of Cass Lake.

Additionally, Bliss was asked to have officials from Bemidji and Brainerd offices of the Minnesota Department of Transportation in the group.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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