The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Editor's blog

September 18, 2013

Highway 14 expansion can happen with enough finagling

It’s sometimes enlightening to learn that the nuances of arcane, incredibly complex, but maybe well-intentioned federal, state and local government policies actually affect people in real ways.

Take the whole debate about getting Highway 14 on MnDOT’s 20-year plan for improvements and expansion.

The Highway is a documented safety nightmare in some places. The Free Press provided some of that documentation in a three-part series in 2010 that eventually caught the attention of policymakers and prompted MnDOT to do its own safety audit. That study found safety was much worse than thought. The fatality rate was nearly three times the state average.

Eventually, Gov. Mark Dayton helped push and approve a project of widening to the highway to four lanes between North Mankato and Nicollet. That project is underway.

But now businesses, governments and average citizens are pushing to get the final pieces of Highway 14’s two lanes converted to four lanes. It’s key that project be listed on MnDOT’s 20-year plan, they say.

Seems simple enough. But despite calls from the groups, the Highway 14 coalition and even Congressmen Tim Walz, the Highway is not likely to be listed on the local MnDOT office’s 20-year plan, unless, of course, Dayton and Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle can be persuaded to overrule the local District Seven Transportation Engineer Greg Ous.

As MnDOT district engineer, Ous makes this call at the local level, though he notes his report is a “recommendation” to his bosses Dayton and Zelle.

He didn’t seem inclined to include the Highway 14 project in the local 20-year plan when I talked to him Tuesday. Listening to his rationale, I understand where he is coming from, though I don’t agree with it.

I don’t doubt for one minute there are, as Ous points out, federal rules and measures and data that the local MnDOT office has to consider in its 20-year plan and report. State and federal road funding is intricately intertwined. It also is suggested that projects should not be listed if they cannot be paid for with the current funding stream.

That’s one of the biggest hang-ups for Highway 14. By our estimate three years ago, Highway 14 would cost per year about 8 times the allocation the local MnDOT office gets.

Ous is the first to say, however, if the funding stream increases, Highway 14, or parts of it, will certainly be put on the list. MnDOT would likely address safety issues first.

But Ous wouldn’t say he would get punished for not following the rules and putting Highway 14 in the list anyway, but maybe, like others in these large transportation bureaucracies, he would like to keep his job – a recent promotion.

Ous says much of the money, again going by the rules, needs to be allocated to the District’s maintenance programs and those are driven by state and federal rules/guidelines that set specific percentages for the number of roads in the state in a given condition.

I’ve seen these reports and I know they exist, but I also know for the last seven or so years of the Pawlenty administration, the state didn’t come close to meeting the “requirements” for road condition standards. It’s laudable that Dayton seems to want to turn the tide on that, and has commissioned a study group to figure out how to come up with more funding.

MnDOT officials point out that Highway 14 is listed as an “illustrative listing” as one that would be funded on one of that group’s recent reports.

Ous seems to think the listing of Highway 14 on the 20-year plan, however, doesn’t really make or break the project. The Highway 14 Coalition contends that having the highway on the list makes it more likely it would get federal funding. Ous doubts that.

Interestingly, he notes that lack of earmarks in Congress now makes it more difficult to find funding for some of these specially listed projects.

So the ball is really in Dayton’s court. The governor recently asked Minnesotans to offer suggestions on making the state run better, be more efficient and more responsive to people.

Here’s my advice on getting this done and cutting some red tape: Be flexible on the federal rules. Finagle the language if we have to. Interpret the rules our way and apologize later. Let’s put Highway 14 in the plan.

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