Minnesota Highway 23 doesn't look the same as it did 20 years ago, but local transportation advocates say it's the changes potentially yet to come that will make it a safer, more business-friendly highway.
A day after the Minnesota Department of Transportation came out with its summer road construction plans for 2013, the chairman of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee said 23 can be better, and improvements to the highway will carry multiple benefits.
A short-term, high-priority goal of Marshall's transportation group has been safety improvements on 23, especially where it intersects with other roads. One of those has been accomplished - the pedestrian underpass between Southwest Minnesota State University and Marshall High School.
But a short drive southwest on 23 leads to a pair of problem spots the committee is working to address.
Those two pressing areas near Marshall are the Saratoga Street/Highway 23 interchange and the County Road 7 interchange with 23.
David Sturrock, chairman of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee, said there are myriad problems concerning the Saratoga/23 intersection - the angle of the road, the flow of traffic, the transition speeds - that make it a dangerous and unpredictable intersection.
"With that, you have pedestrian traffic," Sturrock said. "We have people living south of Highway 23 who take it upon themselves to cross it, and that's extremely dangerous. It's the biggest traffic hazard we have in our region. We're looking for opportunities where we can remedy some of these problems."
Sturrock said the transportation committee, in partnership with the city of Marshall and Lyon County, has gotten a good response from MnDOT as far as the potential for getting grant money for future upgrades to 23. Some proposals, such as an overpass, would come with quite a bulky price tag, but smaller, less expensive improvements - part of an incremental plan of progress - such as passing lanes, would go a long way in achieving an overall safer, more productive highway, conducive to an evolving traffic pattern along the highway.
"We've got some money for safety-specific projects, and we want to see that used to make 23 safer, both north and south," Sturrock said.
He said the hope is those kind of smaller improvements will help grow the potential of expanding the highway to four lanes, a concept that would help the city of Marshall compete with its neighbors to the west. MnDOT, Sturrock said, is well aware of the strong desire the transportation committee has to improve 23 - both for safety and economic reasons.
"Jon Huseby (MnDOT District 8 manager) has taken a keen interest in the things we're trying to accomplish here. He and his staff have been very helpful in advising us on opportunities in how we can get those resources," Sturrock said.
Sturrock, who replaced the late Steve Strautz as head of the transportation committee, said while safety is the No. 1 issue, connectivity is a close second - "the ability to get from one place to another at a reasonable speed and convenience," he said. "Both of those translate to economic development. It's become more important over time for our major employers to be able to get their product into town, out of town."
But improving 23 wouldn't benefit only the large employers, he said. A number of the 18-wheelers traveling on 23 belong to family farms hauling their own grain or hauling grain for others, or those moving product for the private sector.
"There's a lot of traffic out there, and it's not all concentrated in the Marshall Industrial Park by a long shot," Sturrock said. "A lot of these home-based truck units have to get onto and off of 23 at intersections that weren't built for those kinds of contacts. The use pattern has changed."
Sturrock said the issues surrounding 23 are not complicated. Improvements on the thoroughfare, he said, will satisfy the safety issue, as well as an economic issue that has become more evident in the last 20 years. However, he also realizes there is plenty of competition for state transportation dollars.
"If you don't stand up and tell your story and be vigorous and be consistent and repetitive, they're not going to hear it," he said. "Somebody has to initiate that message and keep reinforcing it."
Sturrock said the transportation group is taking a realistic approach to improvements on 23. Knowing there's only so much transportation funding to go around in the state causes the group to focus on those more conservative improvements that will help it achieve its goals.
"We're not talking about an overpass at County Road 7 because the costs are prohibitive," he said. "There are cheaper ways to get most of the safety needs met."
Still, getting a big enough piece of the funding pie is a challenge, even if there is more funds dedicated to transportation this year by the Legislature.
"The pot is limited," Sturrock said. "The burden is still going to be on us to make the case why our projects matter, why we should be at the top of the list."
Lyon County Commissioner Charlie Sanow said upgrading 23 will parlay into economic development. Improving accessibility for businesses to move their trucks around and through Marshall would play a major role in economic development.
"If you're gonna start recruiting more and more businesses out here, you need to have a way to get the truck traffic moving," he said. "And as soon as you start putting more businesses in Industrial Park, you got more laborers coming to town - they're either gonna live in Marshall or they're gonna drive to Marshall. Getting traffic on and off 23 is an issue."
Sanow said if Marshall were to expand residential areas, the area around 23 is the logical place for it to happen, adding more to the burden 23 already carries.
"Every year it's gonna increase, more and more people coming across there," he said. "Kids on bikes going to the library, going to school, walking to work going that direction. It's just not safe."