The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 26, 2013

MnDOT 20-year plan entering final stage

Mankato's hearing is on Monday

By Dan Linehan
The Mankato Free Press

---- — MANKATO — The public comment window is closing on a state highway draft plan that spends an estimated $474.2 million in the Mankato region’s 13-county district through 2020.

The plan includes major work on Highway 169 between Mankato and St. Peter, two large roundabouts in Mankato and completes the expansion of Highway 60 to four lanes from Windom to St. James.

The biggest priority of the plan for this region appears to be Highway 14, which gets two new bridges in New Ulm and a four-lane expansion from North Mankato to Nicollet — $83.5 million in total.

Public hearings are planned for Monday in Mankato and elsewhere, giving residents of the state an opportunity to give their opinion on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 20-year plan. The official comment period ends Wednesday.

The state has been taking public comment on the plan for many months, and they range from advice about specific projects to requests for MnDOT to take positions on various issues, said Ryan Wilson, the plan’s project manager.

“We have unsurprisingly gotten comments related to US-14 … We really get comments that range across the board,” he said.

The plan acknowledges it won’t please everybody, saying MnDOT will be “unable to make appreciable progress toward non-asset management goals.”

“Assets will continue to decline faster than they can be repaired or replaced,” the plan reads. “The investment mix is not well-aligned with the public’s preferences.”

This is largely because the department estimates it will have $18 billion to spend over the next 20 years, not nearly enough for the $30 billion it needs to meet its performance standards and other goals.

Indeed, most of the spending, at least in the Mankato region, will be on replacing bridges or repairing roads. Though the plan lists projects for seven years, only the first four years are commitments. Through 2017, the only non-maintenance projects in District 7 are as follows: roundabouts in Mankato, flood mitigation on Highways 22 and 169, a pedestrian and bicycling upgrade to the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Mankato and the four-lane expansion of Highway 60.

The roundabouts, on Highway 22 at Madison Avenue and Adams Street, are estimated to cost about $7 million, of which MnDOT will pay $4.4 million. The city and Blue Earth County will pick up the rest. Both roundabouts are slated to be finished next year.

The flood mitigation project, estimated to cost between $28.8 million and $34 million through 2016, will raise about five miles of Highway 169 between Mankato and Le Sueur about one foot above the 100-year flood elevation. The department is also repairing the driving surface of about 15 miles of the highway, though nine of those miles (the ones north of St. Peter) will include a fix to only the southbound lanes.

A small piece of Highway 22 near St. Peter also will be raised in 2015.

The Veterans Memorial Bridge upgrades are listed as 50 percent for bicyclists and 50 percent for walkers. It may include widening sidewalks and putting a barrier between the sidewalk and the road, said Lisa Bigham, planning director for District 7.

“We’re looking for public input and are getting design alternatives very soon,” she said. The project is budgeted for 2015.

The Highway 60 four-lane expansion will be completed in two stages.

The first, from Mountain Lake to Butterfield, will be completed in 2015 at a cost of $14.5 million. It will be designed in both concrete and asphalt variants, and contractors will bid on each. Concrete is more costly to build, but MnDOT factors in its increased lifespan with the bids.

The final piece, westward to Windom, is scheduled for 2017 at a cost of $30 million.

Last summer, Gov. Mark Dayton pledged that Highway 14 would get a four-lane expansion between North Mankato and Nicollet by 2018. The plan budgets $19 million for the construction.

The costliest changes to Highway 14 are the replacement of two bridges in New Ulm at a combined cost of $43.3 million. It may seem counter-intuitive that a single bridge (the Minnesota River bridge is estimated at $30 million) would cost more than a six-mile highway expansion, but bridges just tend to cost more, said Zachary Tess, a MnDOT project manager.

The New Ulm river bridge, he said, includes complicated work with poor soil, the river and the bridge’s piers and abutments.

The rest of the Highway 14 expansion to New Ulm, estimated to cost between $101 million and $167 million, isn’t in the plan. This disappointed some advocates.

Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges, the treasurer of the Highway 14 Partnership, didn’t blame MnDOT.

“Unless we infuse some money into this system, it’s going to continuously lose ground,” he said.

But he said the Corridors of Commerce program, approved by the Legislature this year, “holds a key” if it can get more funding.

And Highway 14 advocates aren’t the only ones disappointed. Likewise left out was a six-lane expansion to Interstate 94 between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities (more than $100 million), a four-lane expansion to Highway 23 from New London to Richmond ($46 million to $90 million) and a four-lane extension of Highway 371 from Jenkins to Pine River ($78 million to $150 million).

The transportation department will review the comments in the next month or so and make changes to its plan, which will be reviewed by the Legislature next spring.