MANKATO — Joe McCabe was just a kid in Watonwan County when civic leaders in places like St. James, Windom and Worthington started pushing to expand Highway 60 to a four-lane expressway.
Under their dream schedule, the project would have been completed about the time McCabe would be graduating from Mankato State College. And the goal would have been reached if McCabe had taken 52 years to get his degree.
McCabe completed his studies in four years, driving the two-lane Highway 60 to college in the late 1960s, hitting four lanes only when the highway approached Mankato.
"It was difficult during the winter months," he said. "You took your life into your own hands on some of those winter days driving back and forth."
Using the highway took patience. Trying to get it upgraded took even more.
McCabe graduated from Mankato State in 1970 and saw his entire career in city government — including 25 years as city administrator of Madelia and 10 more with the same job in St. James — come and go as the Highway 60 project continued in fits and starts.
He retired, came out of retirement to serve as the executive director of the St. James Area Chamber of Commerce, and watched his 70th birthday approach.
As it turned out, Highway 60 became a continuous four-lane highway from Sioux City, Iowa, to Mankato before McCabe became a septuagenarian. The final segment of expressway opened to traffic on Nov. 29. McCabe turned 70 seven days later.
Like all of the still-living proponents of the project, McCabe is seeing the results of perseverance.
"Also the pride of knowing that we've gone from the worst to the best in road travel in our community," he said.
A half-century marathon
As far back as the 1950s, state transportation officials in both Minnesota and Iowa had been talking of a joint effort to make the highway an expressway from Sioux City to Mankato, and MnDOT had indicated in 1961 a desire to complete the work in a decade, according to a 1973 story in Windom's Cottonwood County Citizen.
A strong local lobbying force was born in 1963 — The Highway 60 Action Coalition, which was relentless in pressuring state officials to dedicate money to the expressway. It operated under the slogan "Pray for Me, I Drive Trunk Highway 60."
The slogan reflected the primary goal of the effort, but there was a strong economic motivation as well.
"One was highway safety," McCabe said. "... And second, it was a shortcut from the Twin Cities to Sioux Falls."
For travelers and shippers, Highway 60's diagonal route from northeast to southwest has always offered a more direct route from Minneapolis to Worthington, where the highway intersects with Interstate 90 heading to Sioux Falls. But it also cuts miles off of trips to Sioux City (84 miles versus relying exclusively on the Interstate system) and points beyond, such as Omaha, Denver, the southwestern United States and Pacific Ocean ports in California.
As with most expensive projects, funding was a challenge. Original hopes of completing the entire project in a decade or two proved to be pipe dreams. Work was completed from Lake Crystal to St. James in 1980, and then the money ran out.
The only significant progress in the next 30 years was between Windom and Worthington.
And in Iowa.
The Hawkeye State completed its portion of the Highway 60 upgrade in 2008, finishing with a $227 million seven-year construction blitz to turn the final 55 miles of two-lane into four-lane.
That same year, Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake joined five other Republicans and every state House Democrat to override Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax increase. Because his vote was critical to the override effort, Hamilton was allowed to insert language into the transportation funding bill that paved the way for nearly $125 million aimed at completing the Minnesota portion of the Highway 60 upgrade.
First came a $67 million project at the beginning of this decade to add lanes from near the Iowa border to I-90. In 2013-15, 11 miles of four-lane was added to fill gaps between St. James and Mountain Lake. That left only the 8.5-mile two-lane segment between Mountain Lake and Windom, which became an expressway 10 days ago following a $20 million two-year project completed by Mathiowetz Construction, which has done the bulk of the work on the entire corridor.
Starting to see the pay-off
Greg Ous, who directs MnDOT's Mankato-based District 7, is at least the third district engineer to spend most or all of his career striving to make progress on Highway 60.
"It's always been part of the work I've done," said Ous, the successor to Jim Swanson and Bob Pecore, who also spent their careers working on the project. " ... When you think of all the effort of the contractors, employees, the citizens, it's just countless hours of people working to complete it. You just have a sense of accomplishment."
The citizen effort, which was critical in persuading lawmakers to support more transportation funding, was an essential component, he said.
Ous sees the money, effort and determination paying off — in improved safety, in quicker/more predictable trips for travelers and truckers, and in economic growth for the communities along Highway 60.
"You remove one more barrier for people wanting to invest in southwest and south-central Minnesota," he said.
Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schneider, who has been president of the Highway 60 Action Corporation for 15 years, said Highway 60 is a surprisingly far-reaching piece of roadway.
"It has a lot more connectivity than just northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota," Schneider said.
The direct tie to Minneapolis, via the connection with Highway 169 in Mankato, means Highway 60 is important to leisure travelers heading to the Twin Cities and the north country. It's a critical artery for shippers from Minnesota, Iowa and even Nebraska. And it's vital for the towns along the way, which are home to truck stops, restaurants, ethanol plants, biodiesel plants, meat packers and much more.
Even before the completion of the last segment of four-lane, drivers have been increasingly choosing Highway 60 as more of it has been upgraded — particularly after Highway 169 was improved and rerouted near Shakopee, Eden Prairie and Bloomington, Schneider said.
"We see a lot more a lot more trucks going through our area, and cars going up toward the Twin Cities," he said.
The increased traffic brings an economic boost in itself, but the finished highway also means that every town along it can boast of a high-quality four-lane expressway when recruiting new businesses.
"Windom, St. James, other small towns, they all have that same connectivity with Highway 60 being completed — of being a viable option," Schneider said.
A long-awaited ribbon-cutting
On Friday, a few more cars and pickups will be on Highway 60 — some driven by elderly engineers, retired elected officials and gray-haired local business leaders. A ceremonial ribbon-cutting is slated for 11 a.m. at the Gathering Church in Bingham Lake with a luncheon and program to follow at the Windom Emergency Services Facility.
Schneider will be there, representing the Highway 60 lobbying group. He joined as soon as he became the Nobles County engineer 35 years ago, when the membership was larger and more vibrant.
"Our group has gotten fairly small," he said.
Partly, it's an indication of their success — with members dropping away as their portion of the highway was upgraded. Partly, it's the reality that the finish line ended up being farther down the road than the lifespans of some members.
Schneider will be thinking about the people who couldn't be there: "For me, (the celebration) is more about the foresight of the people in the spring of 1965, who finally got frustrated and said, 'Let's form a Highway 60 Action Corporation.'"
Ous will be driving down Highway 60 from Mankato on Friday, ready to celebrate a project completed while also thinking, like always, about the new lane miles that he has to keep in repair.
"You get this little moment and you can sit back and say 'Wow,' he said. "And then you have to get ready for tomorrow."
And McCabe will be hoping Ous and every other driver on Highway 60 exits into St. James or Madelia, fills their tank or stomach, notices an interesting shop, ducks in to take a look ... . It's happening already.
"Just in the last three years, I've seen a significant increase in traffic on Highway 60," said McCabe, who's also seen the lifesaving benefits of a modern divided highway compared to that narrow road he drove to Mankato State College in the 1960s. "Especially today with all the distracted driving out there, having a four-lane instead of a two-lane is a lot safer."