Highway 66, the main road from Good Thunder to Mankato, may soon undergo a multi-million-dollar upgrade and then cease to exist as a state highway.
Blue Earth County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are in discussions to have the highway’s ownership transferred to the county, but only after MnDOT pays to resurface, widen and improve both the safety and the design speeds of the 12-mile road.
“It everything falls into place, we’re hoping to have an agreement sometime before spring,” said Gordon Regenscheid, the state aid engineer for MnDOT’s Mankato-based District 7.
If the Blue Earth County Board signs off, a public meeting would then follow to answer the questions of Good Thunder residents and others that live along or use the highway.
“With construction soon to follow,” Regenscheid said.
Minnesota’s Route 66 doesn’t have quite the notoriety of U.S. 66 (which winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way), made famous by a Nat King Cole tune. But scenery seekers do get their kicks on the local Highway 66 as they wind through the wooded valley from west Mankato past the Mount Kato ski area, over the Le Sueur River, under the Red Jacket Trestle and up the long tree-canopied ravine to the countryside east of Rapidan.
For folks in Good Thunder and other residents of south-central Blue Earth County, Highway 66 has been a narrow, sometimes unforgiving route to Mankato that deteriorated badly until a resurfacing a decade ago.
“It was in terrible shape,” said Good Thunder Mayor Robert Anderson, who said the road continues to need improvements even after the resurfacing. “It definitely needs to be upgraded.”
That’s an unlikely prospect under continuing state ownership. By state highway standards, Highway 66 is a low-volume road that doesn’t provide connections between other state highways.
“It dead-ends in Good Thunder, and nobody ever does anything (to improve it),” Anderson said.
Regenscheid conceded that a substantial investment by the state is unlikely simply because Highway 66 can’t climb above busier highways on the priority list.
“We can please more motorists by doing a Highway 14 than a 66,” he said.
The result under continued state ownership would be occasional maintenance projects but no major improvements for the foreseeable future.
“It would basically be holding it together for many, many years,” Regenscheid said.
The idea of a turnback — where the county takes responsibility for future maintenance, including snowplowing — gives Highway 66 a good shot at special state funding. The money is set aside for removing highways that don’t serve the state system’s task of moving traffic across Minnesota or between major destinations.
Before a road is turned over to a local government, the special state turnback funds are used to get the road in prime condition. What constitutes prime condition is where discussions between the county and the state come in. Blue Earth County Public Works Director Al Forsberg presented MnDOT with conceptual plans for adding 6-foot shoulders to the road, softening sharp curves, adding guardrails in places and making other improvements to the safety of the highway.
The plan calls for a road designed to handle 60 mph speeds (although the official speed limit would remain 55) for more than six miles between Good Thunder and County Road 9 — a relatively straight and flat section. As the road enters the ravine that takes it down into the Le Sueur River valley, it would be designed for 45 mph speeds. North of County Road 90, as the highway passes Mount Kato and approaches Mankato, the design speeds would be 40 mph.
“It would be a significant upgrade from what’s there,” Forsberg said.
Initial cost estimates are being developed and could be available in the next couple of weeks.
Regenscheid wouldn’t make even rough guesses about the potential investment by the state as part of the turnback process. Asked if it could be as expensive as the recent turnback of County Road 17 (the old Highway 14 between Mankato and Eagle Lake), he didn’t think so. That project, which will be completed next summer, involved $8 million in state turnback funds, although it’s less than half the length of Highway 66.
“I think as a cost per mile, it should be less than (County Road) 17,” he said. “And that’s just a flat-out gut feeling.”
The turnback would be one of the longest stretches MnDOT would be looking at statewide, where about $20-$25 million is available annually to handle all turnback projects. But Regenscheid is optimistic the Highway 66 proposal could be funded soon.
The result would be state dollars financing an improvement that’s high on Blue Earth County’s priority list but low on the state’s, Forsberg said. The county essentially has two major north-south roads — Highway 169 on the western side of the county and Highway 22 on the eastern side. For residents of the central part of the county, Highway 66 is the one they rely on.
“It is an important road and it will continue to be,” Forsberg said. “It deserves the investment.”
As mayor of Good Thunder, Anderson strongly concurs. “Everybody in Good Thunder works in Mankato.”
Along with commuters, thousands of truckloads of corn and beans flow north each year on Highway 66 from the farmland around Good Thunder.
The construction 20 years ago of County Road 90, which serves as a southern bypass of Mankato, means that a lot of traffic from Good Thunder — especially semis — no longer follow Highway 66 all the way into Mankato, Anderson said. But even drivers who head east on 90 still drive Highway 66 for the first nine miles or so.
Anderson expects to support the turnback, saying “We all pay taxes, and we might as well fight to get our share of it.”
If that happens, he would see it as an aberration because Mankato’s influence too often causes the county to focus on building new roads to support urban growth while roads such as Highway 66 get forgotten.
“All of rural Blue Earth County does as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Forsberg disagrees with that sentiment, often talking about the importance of farm-to-market roads. And he promises that a County Road 66 would be better cared for in the future than State Highway 66 has been in the past.
“From a standpoint of maintenance, I think we could do a better job,” Forsberg said.
As for the cost of that ongoing maintenance, the county gets a share of state gas tax revenues based on the number of miles of designated county-state-aid highways it has. The Highway 66 turnback would add to the CSAH system in Blue Earth County and boost the annual revenue received from the state — an increase roughly equivalent to the cost of maintaining the new miles, Forsberg said.