WILLMAR — State Funding
benefited Minnesota’s Highway 23 in the Willmar area by funding the so-called North Gap and South Gap projects to complete the four-lane freeway to St. Cloud, as well as construct passing lanes near Raymond and Clara City.
But the program has also been criticized by state lawmakers who have claimed the funding benefited projects in the metro area over those in Greater Minnesota.
Changes are proposed to the program to address this and other concerns. Proposal obtained the support of some members of the
who heard these proposed changes at their meeting on Friday.
Zonal Transportation Partnerships, created to allow for greater public involvement in transportation planning, are comprised of local elected officials, city officials, county engineers, and staff from each MnDOT district.
Proposal would allow each of the Greater Minnesota Area’s transportation partnerships to nominate up to three projects for consideration in each funding round, according to Patrick Weidemann, director of capital planning and programming for trade corridors at the central office. of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Weidemann said the MnDOT is also looking to better delineate the definition of Greater Minnesota and the metropolitan area. The current draft proposal would continue to split funding 50/50, but with Greater Minnesota and the metro area separately vying for their 50% funding share.
The legislature has allocated $200 million for the next round of trade corridor projects. Regional transportation partnerships representing MnDOT districts in Greater Minnesota could propose 32 projects for consideration under this scenario. The metropolitan council’s transportation advisory committee could name or recommend up to 10 projects, while Chisago County could name one as part of the metropolitan area projects.
The proposal would also require that 25% of Greater Minnesota’s funding be set aside for projects with a scope of less than $10 million.
Weidemann said the new proposal follows criticism received by the MnDOT after awarding four projects in 2017, all within 50 linear miles of downtown Minneapolis. The projects included two metropolitan projects on Interstate 494 and I-494/I-35, and two in the districts of Greater Minnesota: work on US Highway 169 in Elk River and I-94 from St. Michael in Albertville.
It was “very clear from the chorus of complaints that others had interpreted ‘regional balance’ very differently than we had at MnDOT,” Weidemann said.
He said the scoring system used to award funding under the program tends to favor roads near growing metropolitan areas because it is based on traffic criteria. Criteria include safety, traffic congestion and movement of goods, he explained.
Other challenges MnDOT faced were the requirement that it scoping and review all projects recommended to it for funding and that the process of submitting projects for review be open to virtually anyone. MnDOT received 173 project nominations for 2017 and had six weeks to define them, provide cost estimates and assess their benefits. The MnDOT had to contract a consultant in its effort to analyze and rank all the projects, some of which were designated as little more than scratches on the back of a napkin.
Under this new proposal, individual regional transport partnerships would essentially serve as a screening mechanism to narrow project nominations down to a more manageable number for analysis.
State Representative Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, had been critical of the 2017 selections. He told Weidemann he liked the ideas being considered for the program, but still had some concerns.
Torkelson said he felt it was important that the legislative perspective be brought into the process, although he also stressed that he was personally opposed to the postings. He also suggested that more discussion will be needed on how to delineate what is Greater Minnesota versus the metropolitan area.
The Corridors of Commerce program is very important, he noted. It allows great projects to move forward that might not have happened otherwise.
The completion of North Gap and South Gap to develop a four-lane connection between Willmar and St. Cloud is one of the great projects it makes possible. On that front, District 8 Engineer Jon Huseby said there is good news. Bids for the North Gap were recently awarded for approximately $41.75 million, less than the $48.5 million estimate.
The Corridors of Commerce program is providing a total of $101.5 million for the entire project. The favorable bid for the North Gap “gives us confidence that we will be able to achieve the overall budget without major issues,” Huseby said.
“We delivered it on time and it was on budget,” the district engineer said. The MnDOT is planning a breakthrough event for work in the spring, he added.