Minnesota Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee visits Willmar

WILLMAR -- Years of presentations about the need for expanding Highway 23 between Willmar and Interstate 94 may finally be bearing fruit. While much of the road has been expanded to four lanes, two two-lane gaps remain. This week, the seven-mile ...

Tina Erpenbach, center, president Northern States Supply in Willmar, speaks about the company’s need for better roads Friday. It hosted a Minnesota Senate Transportation and Public Safety meeting. Listening are Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, left, and Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, right. (TRIBUNE/Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR - Years of presentations about the need for expanding Highway 23 between Willmar and Interstate 94 may finally be bearing fruit.
While much of the road has been expanded to four lanes, two two-lane gaps remain.
This week, the seven-mile gap between New London and Paynesville was included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan for the state’s roads and bridges.
And Friday afternoon, members of the Minnesota Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee visited Willmar to talk about the gaps and when they might be completed.
About 30 people filled a training room at Northern States Supply to speak with the senators and local legislators about transportation issues.
Highway 23 was a topic, but not the only one. The need for safety improvements on Highways 12 and 212 was discussed. Representatives of Duininck Co. spoke about a change in road restrictions that could save money for the company and its customers. The Better Trucks Initiative may also bring Minnesota’s regulations closer to those of surrounding states.

Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis was joined by members Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan and Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and by Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, a member of the House Transportation and Policy Committee. Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, also attended.
Dibble told the group that a transportation and funding plan needs to pass the Legislature in 2015 or wait until 2017. “It’s a sad fact,” he said, that the 2016 Legislature would probably not pass a transportation program in an election year.
Steve Renquist, director of economic development for Willmar and Kandiyohi County, talked about the potential impact of a completed four-lane Highway 23. The economic impact of a completed road could aid the state budget, he said.
Better transportation to and from the Willmar area and western Minnesota are important to the region’s economic growth, Renquist said.
He said other areas have flourished after major transportation projects were completed, and that could happen to Willmar, too, according to Renquist.
The area has done a lot on its own to boost its economy, including developing a new airport, he said, and the economy has increased by about $1 billion in the past 10 years.
The lack of transportation hampers the ability to develop value-added agricultural projects and to attract potential manufacturing development, he said.
Better transportation opportunities could bring about even more growth, he said.
“In the next 10 years, in west central Minnesota alone, we could increase the economy by over $1.5 billion,” he said. When asked to explain that, Renquist said better transportation helps an area attract more factories, jobs and other investments. In turn, those developments lead to related economic growth in a community.
Others spoke about the need for a sustainable plan for improving and maintaining roads in the state. They also spoke of the need to agree on a plan before talking about raising taxes to pay for it.
Tina Erpenbach, president of Northern States Supply, and Donald Cole, vice president of operations at Jennie-O Turkey Store, spoke of their companies’ need for better roads.
Erpenbach said her company needs to ship goods nightly to customers and other company locations.
Cole said Jennie-O has a tight supply chain for its seven plants. “Transportation not only in the Willmar area but in all of rural Minnesota is very important to us,” he said. Of Highway 23, he said, “The better we can make that connection and fill in those gaps to make it safer would just be better for our business.”
After listening to presentations, Dibble agreed that the state’s major transportation corridors need work. “There is a lot of pent-up potential and opportunity along these corridors,” he said. “We have absolutely seen, where we make those investments, those areas flourish.”
Dibble said his committee is committed to finding a bipartisan solution to the state’s infrastructure needs.
“I think we can do it,” he said, adding that he has a good relationship with his counterpart in the Minnesota House.
“The door is open,” Dibble said. “We’re going to get through it and we’re going to get something good done at the end of the day; I hope so.”

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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