A vision of four lanes from one corner of the state to the other
In Minnesota, there isn’t a complete four-lane highway going from the far southwest to the northeast. The Highway 23 Coalition feels creating such a thoroughfare would mean not only economic opportunities for all the communities and businesses along Highway 23, but also safer travel for all who use it.
The Highway 23 Coalition has a vision of a four-lane corridor from the far southwest corner of the state near Luverne all the way up to Hinckley , just before drivers reach the popular North Shore. It is a vision that will require a lot of time, effort and money to make a reality, but it is a job the coalition seems willing to take on.
“We want the whole corridor, and we are not going to stop until we get it,” said Donna Boonstra, coalition chair.
In Minnesota, there isn’t a complete four-lane highway going from the far southwest to the northeast. The coalition feels creating such a thoroughfare would mean not only economic opportunities for all the communities and businesses along Highway 23 , but also safer travel for all who use it. It would be more efficient, safer and shorter for truckers to take four lanes on Highway 23 than to have to travel through the Twin Cities. Boonstra said truckers could save about 54 miles, or an hour of travel, by using Highway 23.
“I don’t know if you can even put a value on it,” Boonstra said.
The coalition, in its current iteration, was formed in the fall of 2017. Its main goal was to expand Highway 23 to a four-lane highway from Willmar to St. Cloud . That requires two gaps to be upgraded from two to four lanes. The north gap is a nine-mile stretch between Paynesville and Richmond, while the south gap is a shorter distance of seven miles between New London and Paynesville.
To fund the projects, which are estimated to cost more than $100 million, the coalition sought to secure funding through the Corridors of Commerce program.
“Right away we got to work and applied,” Boonstra said.
While the coalition felt Highway 23 was a perfect fit for such funding, in the end the outcome was not positive.
“We were not awarded that money,” Boonstra said.
That wasn’t the end, and only in Minnesota would a road project secure funding on a fishing boat.
Then-Minnesota Gov, Mark Dayton was in the Willmar Lakes Area for the 2018 Governor’s Fishing Opener. While on Green Lake fishing for walleye, Dayton’s guide Kelly Morrell talked to Dayton — as well as then-House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — about the Highway 23 project and told the story of a 11-year old boy who had recently died in a car accident on one of the two-lane stretches.
By the time Dayton was back on dry land, Morrell had secured a pledge from the governor to fund the two gap projects. The pledge eventually became law when the Highway 23 gaps received Corridors of Commerce funding, now totaling $101.5 million, according to an update from the Minnesota Department of Transportation .
“It was so good,” Boonstra said.
Bid letting for the north gap project is set to be done in November of this year, with construction beginning next spring. The project should be completed in 2023, according to project information from MnDOT.
The south gap project will be constructed starting in spring 2023 and finished in 2024.
“We will be exhilarated, we really will,” when the projects are completed, Boonstra said.
Now that the gap projects are secure, the coalition is turning its attention to the next steps. This includes increasing membership in the coalition, prioritizing next projects and finding funding to continue improving the highway.
“Our focus is entirely to figure out the funding for MnDOT to make that four-lane happen,” Boonstra said. “There are so many sources of funding that you have to apply for and hope to get.”
Future projects could include a traffic study for the section of highway between Foley and Milaca in hopes of making that a four-lane section.
“There have been so many tragic accidents in that section of Highway 23,” Boonstra said.
Boonstra feels that the success of the gap projects could help get even more communities, especially those on the northern half of the highway, interested in joining the coalition. The more members there are, the stronger a force the coalition could be when lobbying for improvements.
“Once these two gaps get done in 2024, then our momentum is going to go guns blazing,” Boonstra said.
Closer to home, Boonstra and the coalition feel the impacts of the improved Highway 23 will be nothing but positive, helping the area grow into even more of a regional center.
“It will improve Kandiyohi County’s economic development,” Boonstra said. “You are just going to see it; it is just going to evolve.”
This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's IMPACT edition on Oct. 23, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at https://issuu.com/westcentraltribune/docs/impact_2021