The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 28, 2011

Road construction catching up

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — OK, so torrential rains in September were followed by a major snow storm in the first half of November, historic levels of snow in the ensuing months, a cold, wet, late winter, a spring that didn’t come until May, and then some brutally humid weather in June and July.

While most Minnesotans were itching for some decent weather, people trying to build streets, highways and bridges were getting downright desperate. Then came the first four weeks of the eighth month.

“August has been beautiful,” said Michael McCarty, acting city engineer for the City of Mankato.

“These last few weeks have just been excellent,” said Al Forsberg, Blue Earth County’s public works director.

McCarty and Forsberg are now expecting that the projects slated to be done when the snow flies again will actually be done.

At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, where political storms threw a three-week government shutdown into the mix, there’s still hope. In some cases though, the hope relies on winter not making an early arrival in 2011 because a lot of projects remain a month or more behind schedule and the basic maintenance list for MnDOT staff has grown very long.

“There’s things that just won’t happen (without a great autumn),” said MnDOT District 7 spokeswoman Rebecca Arndt.

Soggy weather, and a state stalemate

The shutdown gets most of the blame for delays in state projects, but Arndt said the floods of September and March played a role. The traditional adage that Minnesota is a land of two seasons — winter and road construction — might need to be revised.

“I’m starting to think there’s a third season — flooding,” Arndt said.

High river levels made bridge projects a challenge well into the summer, she said. Soggy ground also made it difficult to do grading work, especially on the Highway 14 four-lane expansion between Waseca and Owatonna which is following a new alignment through farmland.

The opening of the four-lane all the way to Interstate 35 is still scheduled for sometime in 2012, though, which was the official estimate for several years.

Other projects that were set to finish this summer are now going to continue until autumn. So detours will continue on Highway 83 south of Mankato and Highway 30 between Mapleton and Amboy.

Highway 83 was originally expected to be done by the end of July. Now its completion is projected for mid-October, Arndt said. Highway 30, once set to be reopened this month, now won’t be wrapped up until the end of September.

A detour on Highway 4 near Sleepy Eye because of a bridge replacement will continue until late October rather than end in September.

All state projects were delayed at least three weeks — the length of the state government shutdown that occurred when the governor and Legislature couldn’t agree on a new two-year budget. But many projects actually suffered a much lengthier setback because private contractors — unsure how long the Minnesota projects would be shuttered — relocated equipment and asphalt plants to construction sites elsewhere, Arndt said.

Bureaucratic clouds, and sunnier days

Blue Earth County expected to almost completely escape delays caused by the state shutdown, Forsberg said. MnDOT did a great job in the weeks leading up to the July 1 shutdown date to let the county know which projects could continue.

“We had eight contracts that were in process, and we were able to keep seven of the eight going,” Forsberg said.

Then, in one of the last pre-shutdown acts, the Department of Natural Resources sent out letters to counties telling them their public-water permits were terminated as part of the shutdown. That forced the county to discontinue work on three bridge projects.

“I thought the DNR handled that very poorly,” said Forsberg, who felt the DNR could have followed the lead of state pollution control officials — who simply informed counties that they would be expected to meet Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requirements even if MPCA inspectors weren’t working.

Other county projects were delayed by bad weather but are catching up to original timelines — including the County Road 12/Highway 14 interchange on Mankato’s east side, which is still slated for a 2012 opening.

That expectation, of course, relies on reasonable weather this fall and next spring and summer. As sophisticated as modern construction equipment is, snowflakes and rain drops can still bring everything to a halt.

“We’re still subject to the whims of Mother Nature,” Forsberg said.

Catching up, and looking ahead

Major Mankato street reconstruction projects have been helped by drier weather in July and August, McCarty said. Vine Street; Bradley and Locke; Carney, West Second and West Third; Ridgewood and Sunset — they’re all on schedule to be completed in coming weeks.

The project at Carney Avenue and Park Lane, where historic paver stones are going to be put back in place after underground work is completed, is more of a challenge because of delays caused by high ground water.

“That one’s going to be a little tight to get done by the middle of October,” McCarty said.

Mid-October has been the traditional target for wrapping up Mankato projects — the assumption being that winter won’t arrive in force before then. McCarty isn’t so sure anymore.

“The way things have been going, I’m expecting the first frost by the 1st of September,” he said.

But when Mankato really needs ideal construction weather — an early spring and a lot of dry days through the summer — might be next year. A $3 million to $4 million reconstruction of Carney Avenue all the way to the city limits is planned.

And so is an estimated $5.5 million reconstruction of Madison Avenue — 2.5 miles of the busy thoroughfare from Seventh Street to Highway 22.