Dirt is moving along Highway 23 gaps project, a moment of celebration for supporters
While construction has already begun on the north gap of the Highway 23 four-lane project, supporters gathered Friday in Roscoe to officially celebrate the start of the long-planned and wished-for project. A groundbreaking ceremony was held at the Roadside Tavern Banquet Hall, with various state, county, city and township dignitaries from along Minnesota Highway 23 in attendance.
ROSCOE — After years of dreaming, advocating, planning, designing and a fish story to remember, construction of the Minnesota Highway 23 Gaps project has officially begun, celebrated by a ground-breaking ceremony in Roscoe Friday. A large crowd of supporters and advocates for the project converged on the Roadside Tavern for the occasion — from elected state and county representatives and their staff to personnel from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Mathiowetz Construction, the project contractor.
"It takes a lot to develop a four-lane highway. It takes a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort from a lot of people," said Jon Huseby, MnDOT District 8 engineer.
The project , by its completion in 2024, will see Highway 23 from Willmar to St. Cloud be four lanes along the entire stretch. Currently there are two two-lane gaps along that corridor, the nine-mile stretch between Richmond and Paynesville known as the north gap and the seven-mile south gap from Paynesville to New London.
The north gap portion of the project is under construction now, with the south gap work to begin in 2023. The project is being paid for by state Corridors for Commerce funds, approximately $101.5 million.
"That has played a huge role in this," Huseby said.
It wasn't easy to get the gaps project to this point. It took years of investment. The final push to get the project approved started in summer 2017, when the Highway 23 Coalition reorganized and became the powerhouse behind getting the gaps filled. The coalition membership is made up of cities, counties, businesses and organizations from across Highway 23, which goes from I-90 near Pipestone all the way to Duluth. The group has spent years campaigning for the project.
"It is so magnificent," Donna Boonstra, chair of the Highway 23 Coalition, said about the start of the project. "It is a milestone that the people in our community are going to be so thankful for."
The project also required the helping hand of fishing guide Kelly Morrell.
Back in 2018, the Willmar area played host to the Governor's Fishing Opener, and only days earlier the news had broken that the Highway 23 project had not been funded. Instead of giving up, Morrell, who was Governor Mark Dayton's fishing guide on Green Lake for the opener, cut the engine of the boat near the shore and talked to Dayton and the other lawmakers with him about the importance of the gaps project. He talked about the young boy who had recently been killed in a crash on the south gap and how important the project would be for the surrounding area.
"He said 'yes, that's a great idea, I'll vote for that,'" Morrell recalled, adding the other lawmakers, who were from different parties were smiling and nodding along. Within a few weeks, an additional $400 million was added to the Corridors of Commerce, with the Highway 23 Gaps receiving a quarter of it.
"I was in shock. I felt it was miraculous harmony," Morrell said, who believes there was divine intervention.
Even with the money secured, there was a lot of work to be done before the first load of dirt could be turned. MnDOT had gotten a head start on the environmental assessments and right of way purchases for the project, but final designs and schematics, land purchases and budgeting still had to be done.
Huseby said MnDOT staff worked hard to keep the project in line, budget-wise. It was a day of celebration when the low bidder, Mathiowetz Construction, came in under budget.
"I plan to build a first-class project that we can be proud of," said Brian Mathiowetz, chief executive officer of Mathiowetz Construction.
Nearly every speaker at the groundbreaking spoke about the importance of the project. Having a complete four-lane highway from Willmar to St. Cloud will be a benefit to countless businesses and people.
"On Highway 23 there are turkeys, sugar beets, milk, sand, gravel, broadcast sprayers, robotic systems, veterinary vaccines, snowplow wedges, fuel and so much more that is being produced in this part of the state," Huseby said. "And then you stop and think about who is traveling this road every day. It is nurses, doctors, tradespeople, factory, food and retail workers, teachers, family, golfers, fisherman and campers."
Then there is the safety aspect of the project.
Having two lanes of traffic going in each direction should help reduce the number of serious and fatal crashes along the highway. State Senator Jeff Howe, who represents District 13, said the need for the project became clear after a semi truck nearly killed a girl waiting for her school bus along the south gap of Highway 23 in 2014 . The truck had blown between the bus and child on the shoulder of the highway at a high speed.
"That said we need to fix this," Howe said. "That is why we need to get this done. It is for our kids, it's for the safety for everyone that lives on this corridor."
While everyone at the groundbreaking was excited about the start of construction and what the end result should be, there was also understanding that the next few years could challenge for many drivers and those who live and work along the gaps.
A detour for the north gap project is set to take effect on May 16 and will reroute drivers to Stearns County Roads 33, 32 and 12. There will also be additional traffic impacts along the constructions zones throughout the next three years. Interim MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger asked for everyone's understanding and patience while traveling through the construction zones.
"Please pay attention, drive the speed limit, put distractions away," Daubenberger said. "We want our workers out there to be able to go home to their families safe, and we want those traveling along our roads to go home safe."