Highway 14 near Nicollet

West of Nicollet, Highway 14 changes from two lanes to four lanes going eastbound and four lanes to two lanes going westbound. The project was denied funding through the Corridors of Commerce program. File photo

MANKATO -- The long-sought expansion of Highway 14 to four lanes in southern Minnesota was shut out of any piece of the $400 million in road improvements announced by state transportation leaders Tuesday, as was the rest of outstate Minnesota.

Half of the funding is going to additional lanes on Interstate 494 and the other half is going to highway expansions in exurban communities just northwest of Minneapolis. The money comes from the Corridors of Commerce program which aims to boost projects that are needed for both transportation and economic development reasons.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said the projects were selected through an objective scoring program and split the funding almost evenly between MnDOT's eight-county Metro District and the remainder of the state. But the outstate money all landed within a few miles of Hennepin County, funding a $157 million conversion of Highway 169 near the Elk River area into a freeway and a $56 million expansion of I-94 in the St. Michael-Albertville area from four lanes to six.

"I think it's fair to say there will be more communities disappointed than pleased," Zelle said in a press conference announcing the selections for the 2018 fiscal year.

That was a bit of an understatement, as evidenced by a statement released within minutes of the announcement by Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President Dave Smiglewski, who called on the Legislature to overrule Zelle.

"There is far more to Minnesota than a 40-mile radius around U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but you certainly wouldn’t know that from looking at the 2018 awards," Smiglewski said.

The Granite Falls mayor called the agency's list "a massive failure on MnDOT’s part to address transportation needs statewide" and said the victorious projects failed to match the legislative purpose of Corridors of Commerce funding to connect regional corridors to one another and to the metro area.

“We demand that the Legislature take immediate action to suspend MnDOT’s decision so that the program can be reevaluated and brought in line with its original purpose,” he said.

Mankato City Council member Karen Foreman, the president of the Highway 14 Partnership, said the organization was "absolutely befuddled" by the exclusion of the Highway 14 expansion from the list of funded projects.

“The fact that all of the projects that received funding are within 40 miles of downtown Minneapolis goes against the very mission of the program, which is to improve transportation statewide," Foreman said in a statement released to media around the state. "“MnDOT’s scoring system that gives extra points for corridors that connect with the metro area stacked the system against greater Minnesota projects. If Corridors of Commerce doesn’t work for Highway 14, then Corridors of Commerce simply does not work for greater Minnesota."

Zelle and his staff defended the scoring system and their traditional definition of "greater Minnesota" as anything outside of the eight counties in the agency's Metro District. He said the 200-plus projects not funded reflect a dire shortage of road funding in the state rather than any lack of merit in the proposals.

"There were $5.6 billion of worthy projects," he said.

The scores of all proposed projects, which are based on a variety of factors ranging from crash rates to congestion to the number of jobs along a corridor, were also released Tuesday. Zelle noted that the expansion of Highway 14 to four lanes east of Owatonna (a 12-mile stretch around Claremont remains two lanes) and a similar expansion of Highway 23 between Willmar and St. Cloud scored the highest among remaining outstate projects and are likely to fare well if the Legislature approves another round of Corridors of Commerce funding.

The four-lane expansion of Highway 14 between Nicollet and New Ulm is farther down the list, ranked behind a $270 million project to improve I-35 in Duluth among outstate projects. Even lower in the rankings, trailing billions of dollars of metro and outstate projects, are proposed interchange improvements of Highway 60 in Windom, a new Highway 14/Highway 169 interchange in Mankato, a Highway 169 bypass of St. Peter and new interchanges on Highway 169 at Lind and Webster streets in Mankato/North Mankato.

The Highway 14 Partnership is calling for a reform of the program.

“We urge the Legislature to undertake a top-to-bottom review of Corridors of Commerce before any more money is allocated to MnDOT for this program,” Foreman said.

House Transportation Committee Chair Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, indicated similar thinking in a statement released Tuesday morning.

"We have critical corridors like Highway 23 in western Minnesota, Highway 14 in southern Minnesota, and countless others in desperate need of upgrades and repairs that are being completely ignored by this metro-centric project list," Torkelson stated.

"It's astonishing that MnDOT would select four projects with massive price tags all within 50 miles of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. It's clear that changes are needed to ensure a more balanced approach for the Corridors of Commerce program moving forward."

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