MnDOT ‘ignores’ Hwy. 23 corridor

MARSHALL — The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s unveiling of highway projects that will receive funding through the Corridors of Commerce program caused an outcry across the state on Tuesday. Of 172 projects being considered for funding this year, only four were picked — and all were located within 50 miles of the Twin Cities metro area.

Local legislators and transportation advocates said the decision ignored greater Minnesota, and went against the whole purpose of the Corridors of Commerce program.

“I’m really disappointed in the list they came up with,” said Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “I really felt we had a lot of strong projects in southwest Minnesota, in rural Minnesota in general: Highway 23, Highway 212, the overpasses in Marshall. I really feel they didn’t get the fair shake they deserved with the department.”

Harsher criticism came from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Dave Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls and CGMC president, said the project selections demonstrated “a massive failure on MnDOT’s part” to address statewide transportation needs.

“Corridors of Commerce was clearly designed to be a statewide program aimed at connecting regional corridors to one another and to the metro area,” Smiglewski said. The 2018 project selections didn’t accomplish that, he said. “There is far more to Minnesota than a 40-mile radius around U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but you certainly wouldn’t know that from looking at the 2018 awards.”

Smiglewski said the CGMC is demanding the Legislature take immediate action to suspend MnDOT’s decision, so the Corridors of Commerce program can be re-evaluated.

The Corridors of Commerce program helps provide funding for projects that improve regional transportation corridors. Projects applying for 2018 funding were scored on criteria including economic impact, freight efficiency and safety improvement. Projects proposed in the Marshall area included lane expansions and passing lanes on Highway 212; passing lanes and resurfacing on Highway 23; and interchanges at the intersections of Highway 23 and Highway 19 and Highway 23 and Highway 59 in Marshall.

Of the four projects that were selected for 2018 Corridors of Commerce funding, two were classified as metro projects, and two were classified as Greater Minnesota projects. However, the Greater Minnesota projects didn’t get far from the metro area. The list of projects selected for funding included converting a segment of Highway 169 in Elk River to a freeway, and expanding Interstate 94 from four to six lanes between St. Michael and Albertville.

Within the metro area, projects selected for funding included adding MnPASS express lanes on a segment of Interstate 494, and building an interchange at Interstate 494 and Interstate 35W.

Funding awarded for the four selected projects totaled $469 million.

Tuesday’s announcement of the funding awards drew criticism from area transportation advocates. David Sturrock, chairman of the Marshall Area Transportation Group, said the Legislature needed to show a strong response to MnDOT.

“What they’ve done violates the purpose of the Corridors of Commerce program,” Sturrock said.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chairman of the Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee, also called for action.

“We have critical corridors like Highway 23 in western Minnesota, Highway 14 in southern Minnesota, and countless others in desperate need of upgrades and repairs that are being completely ignored by this metro-centric project list,” Torkelson said. “It’s astonishing that MnDOT would select four projects with massive price tags, all within 50 miles of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s clear that changes are needed to ensure a more balanced approach for the Corridors of Commerce program moving forward.”

Criticism of MnDOT’s selections hit social media on Tuesday, as well. The CGMC’s Twitter account posted a map of the greater Minnesota projects, with the message that the projects could be seen “if you squint real hard at the metro area.”

Both Sturrock and Torkelson said there are likely some aspects of MnDOT’s selection criteria that could make it harder for Greater Minnesota projects to be chosen for Corridors of Commerce funding. If traffic counts are weighed as part of the selection process, then projects in Greater Minnesota aren’t going to rank as high, Sturrock said.

Torkelson said he was concerned about how MnDOT defined the metro area in making its selections.

“MnDOT’s decision to use the Metro Transit definition of the metro area is arbitrary and likely contributed to the lack of geographic balance in this project list,” he said.

Swedzinski said the Corridors of Commerce project selection seemed to reflect the same “metro-centric thinking” that Minnesotans were experiencing on other issues, like the buffer law and ditch mowing regulations.

Swedzinski said he wanted to thank area transportation advocates, especially those on the Highway 23 Coalition, for their work in advancing road projects important to southwest Minnesota.

“I appreciate the work they’re doing, but we’ve got more work to do, obviously,” Swedzinski said.

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