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Pleasant surprise in bonding bill: Highway 23 gaps may finally be filled

WILLMAR -- An end-of-session move by the Legislature that surprised and pleased local supporters provides money to construct the last two gaps in the state Highway 23 four-lane project between Willmar and Interstate 94.

Erica Dischino / TribuneThe Legislature has approved $101 million in bonding funds, pending the governor's signature, that will complete the last two gaps in the state Highway 23 four-lane between Willmar and Interstate 94. Here traffic is shown May 5 moving from a two-lane segment near New London to the four-lane.
Erica Dischino / Tribune The Legislature has approved $101 million in bonding funds, pending the governor's signature, that will complete the last two gaps in the state Highway 23 four-lane between Willmar and Interstate 94. Here traffic is shown May 5 moving from a two-lane segment near New London to the four-lane.
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WILLMAR - An end-of-session move by the Legislature that surprised and pleased local supporters provides money to construct the last two gaps in the state Highway 23 four-lane project between Willmar and Interstate 94.

The Legislature added an additional $400 million to the Corridors of Commerce program in the bonding bill and targeted Highway 23 as one of three highway projects to receive funding, said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, chairman of the House bonding committee.

"Wow" was the word local business leaders had after the bill passed, said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and board member of the Highway 23 Coalition.

"It was pretty exciting. The clock was ticking," he said of the Legislature's action to approve the bonding bill shortly before the session ended at midnight Sunday. "It passed with about 12 minutes to spare."

The $101 million dedicated for Highway 23 means both remaining gaps - a seven-mile stretch of two-lane road between New London and Paynesville and another nine-mile stretch between Paynesville and Richmond - can be expanded to four lanes.

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"Highway 23 is an important project to a lot of our greater western Minnesota legislators and we recognize the importance of doing it," Urdahl said.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who wanted a larger bonding bill than the one approved by the House and Senate, will have the final say.

Urdahl said he's optimistic Dayton will sign it.

"There are all kinds of jobs and infrastructure for the state of Minnesota. I can't imagine the governor vetoing that," he said.

The Highway 23 funding would not be allocated until 2022-2024, but Urdahl said there will be money available this year for the Minnesota Department of Transportation to initiate preliminary work.

Jon Huseby, district engineer with the MnDOT District 8 office in Willmar, said if funding is finalized, MnDOT "would be able to deliver" the project.

"We've been working towards this," Huseby said, adding that there is "a lot of excitement" in the local MnDOT office about the possibility of the project advancing.

Huseby said environmental reviews, which he called critical components, have already been completed for both segments of the project.

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But there are other aspects - such as right-of-way acquisition, completion of the road design and letting of bids - that would have to be completed before construction could begin.

"There are a few more steps to go, but I'm feeling good," said Backman, who praised the work of the the Highway 23 Coalition, which is a group of local government entities and businesses that launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to get the project approved.

Urdahl said he had received dozens of emails and calls from coalition members.

"It has definitely been a team effort to get it to this point," Backman said.

Jason Duininck, another member of the coalition who was at the Capitol on Friday, was sending a steady stream of texts, emails and phone calls to legislators Sunday. He said there was "some turbulent water for a while" as legislators debated the bill that they eventually passed.

"It's exciting to find out how everybody works together for the greater good of Minnesota," Duininck said.

He said the next phase of the lobbying campaign is encouraging Dayton to sign the bill.

During the Governor's Fishing Opener earlier this month on Green Lake - while in a boat in the middle of the lake - Dayton and key legislators were persuaded to support the Highway 23 project.

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Backman said since that fishing boat agreement was made, Dayton has been "talking to MnDOT about the importance of this project."

If Dayton does agree to sign the bonding bill, Backman said he would like to invite the governor to sign it during a ceremony by Green Lake.

Even though funding for the gaps may be a go, Backman and about a dozen other members of the Highway 23 Coalition leave today for Washington, D.C., to meet with Minnesota's congressional delegation and ask for additional funding to improve the corridor south of Willmar.

Backman said there is a need for more turning lanes and passing lanes on that stretch of the highway.

The bonding bill included other regional projects besides Highway 23.

It included funding for three veterans nursing homes, including one in Montevideo; $5 million to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District to renovate their building in Cosmos that's used for a specialized program for students with autism; and $100,000 for the Litchfield Opera House.

The bill also includes an influx of money for the Public Facilities Authority to help communities replace aging water and wastewater infrastructure.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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