By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — At least one prominent business owner and some Mankato city officials are asking Blue Earth County to put its County Road 17 project on hold in 2014.
They are concerned that construction on the old Highway 14 between Mankato and Eagle Lake will be too disruptive when Highway 22 is shut down for the addition of roundabouts where the highway intersects with Madison Avenue and Adams Street.
"(County Road 17) is a critical artery," said Todd Snell, owner of Snell Motors. "Lack of planning on the county's behalf should not constitute a crisis on ours. And frankly it does."
Snell made his comments at a Mankato City Council meeting, and Councilman Mark Frost asked the council to encourage the county to keep County Road 17 open during the roundabout construction on Highway 22, even if it means not completing the county project in 2014 as planned. City Manager Pat Hentges suggested the road remain open when Highway 22 is closed at Adams and Madison Avenue with crews concentrating on utility work.
But Blue Earth County Engineer Al Forsberg said that's not feasible. Most of the utility work is done, and the contractor would probably be able to make a substantial financial claim against the county if the scheduled 2014 work is pushed back a year.
The County Road 17 project, priced at more than $10 million, also could see costs rise by hundreds of thousands of dollars simply through inflation if it was delayed to 2015, he said.
And Forsberg said critics are making false assumptions about the impact of the County Road 17 project on traffic flow next summer. County Road 17 (the old Highway 14 and the road that Madison Avenue becomes as it leaves Mankato) is on pace to temporarily open in November from Mankato to Eagle Lake, and it will stay open through the winter.
Weather permitting, work will resume in April causing portions of the road to close again. But when Highway 22 is shut down for the roundabout construction, County Road 17 will be open from Mankato to just east of County Road 12, a north-south road that connects to the Highway 14 expressway. While County Road 17 will be closed to traffic east of there for about two miles, shoppers from Janesville and Eagle Lake will be able to easily make the trip to Snell Motors, Hilltop Hy-Vee, Kohl's and Lowe's, and the rest of the east-side shopping district, Forsberg said.
Drivers can simply take the Highway 14 expressway to County Road 12 and use the completed portion of County Road 17 to enter Mankato's east side. Because of the existing roundabouts on that route, drivers won't even face a stop sign or signal light until they're approaching the store's parking lots, Forsberg said.
The county is expanding the road to four lanes between Mankato and County Road 12, and about a quarter-mile of the work still needs to be completed. So the road will still be two lanes on that stretch with work resuming in April and May. There's an outside chance that the entire section will be four lanes when Highway 22 is shut down in June, although Forsberg won't comment on the likelihood.
"I don't want to raise people's expectations," he said.
What he promises is that drivers will have a good detour in place.
"This is going to work out just fine," Forsberg said.
The final two miles of work to be done next summer on County Road 17 — reconstructing the two-lane road from just east of County Road 12 to just west of Eagle Lake with a roundabout added at County Road 86 — is slated to take up to 100 days. The county, however, will be looking this winter at the possibility of speeding that construction up through incentives to the contractor to work longer days and weekends.
"The County Board will have to decide: Is that shorter time worth the additional costs?" Forsberg said.
One thing already decided by the County Board, or at least by some commissioners, is that the county has been wrongly blamed.
"It's just not worth getting into it, but I wanted to say something ...," Board Chairman Drew Campbell said. "I don't think that was fair."
The county has been adjusting its work to help ensure good detours are available when Highway 22 is closed for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's roundabout work, Forsberg said. And good planning by the county, city and MnDOT in the past two decades resulted in the extensions of County Road 12 and Victory Drive — the two roads that will take the brunt of the traffic when Highway 22 is closed.
"Before that, we would have had no option to detour that heavy traffic," he said of the 19,000 daily vehicles on Highway 22.
Forsberg conceded that the County Road 17 project, which represents the largest single highway construction contract in county history, has been challenging due to the changes required by MnDOT's decision to do the Highway 22 work in 2014 and by the numerous utility lines in the road's right-of-way. Eagle Lake also asked the county to take a second look at plans to build a roundabout on the city's west side, a decision that was confirmed but required an additional public meeting and a delay in construction.
There was also unusual difficulty in obtaining right-of-way for the expansion of County Road 17 to four lanes as it approaches Mankato. Snell wondered why construction would begin on a project before the necessary land was obtained.
"Some things that should have been in place prior to letting those bids — in my opinion — weren't in place, and they started the project prematurely," Snell told the Mankato City Council.
There were 44 parcels required for the project, and all property owners other than one group of siblings reached a negotiated settlement based on independent land appraisals, Forsberg said. The remaining family, which owns land between Carver Road and County Road 12, sought a payment well above the appraised price.
"They wanted about three times that," Forsberg said.
Agreeing to that payment in the interest of keeping the land acquisition on schedule would have been irresponsible, both to the taxpayers and to the landowners who were more reasonable in their demands, Forsberg said.
Eminent domain proceedings were used to gain control of the land, but several more months could go by before a final price is determined through the legal process.
"I have never seen it take nearly this long," he said.
One thing city and county officials can agree on is that east-side business owners have gotten their message across.
"It's clear that our business community, the board and the city want this done," Forsberg said.
And they want those strip malls and other storefronts as occupied at the conclusion of the 2014 construction season as they are right now.
"We need to make sure those businesses are open at the end," Frost said.