With Blue Earth County set to begin construction on one of its biggest road projects ever next month, the County Board was already looking Tuesday at the next big one.

The upgrade of County Road 17 between Mankato and Eagle Lake, expected to cost more than $11.4 million, could be under way by the end of May and will include multiple roundabouts, a bike trail between the cities and the extension of Madison Avenue as a four-lane for another half-mile to the east.

With that project set to be completed by 2014, Blue Earth County Engineer Al Forsberg said it’s time to start thinking about extending County Road 12 — which intersects County Road 17 on Mankato’s far east side — down to Highway 83.

That missing link would tie together all of the east-side improvements of the last few years, including the new interchange at County Road 12 and Highway 14, the southward extension of County Road 12 from the Mankato Airport to County Road 17 (the old Highway 14), and even the County Road 90 project of 15 years ago that created a southern bypass around Mankato.

“The last stage is to go from 17 all the way to 83,” Forsberg said.

The work would cost an estimated $7 million to $9 million, and Forsberg asked the board to authorize a grant application for state highway funding aimed at economic development. The Area Transportation Partnership, a panel of regional elected officials and engineers that allocates federal transportation dollars, has authorized more than $1.1 million for the County Road 12 extension in 2017.

The grant application is for $5 million.

“I don’t see any down side to applying for this grant,” Forsberg said. “There’s a whole lot of competition. I don’t know what our chances are.”

Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said the project makes sense as an east-side link to County Road 90, which runs well south of Mankato from Highway 22 southeast of town to Highway 60/169 southwest of the city.

“This road would give us one more segment to make a full circle around Mankato,” said Stuehrenberg, who added that truckers in particular would prefer to bypass the high-traffic areas. “You can take a lot of traffic off of 22 and Madison Avenue.”

Drivers, for instance those coming from the north on Highway 22 or from the east on Highway 14, could use the extended County Road 12 to connect with County Road 41 to County Road 90. That would allow them to avoid the multiple signal lights and congestion on Mankato’s east side if they were headed to destinations south or west of Mankato.

“We’re doing this in steps,” Forsberg said of the numerous road improvements of the past 25 years. “But we’ve got a vision and a plan of where we want to end up.”

The new roadway would be more than a mile long and would be four lanes for most of the way, tapering to a two-lane highway with turn lanes as it approached Highway 83.

Along with the federal dollars already committed and the grant application, Forsberg and the County Board will be seeking other federal and state support in the years ahead. Ultimately, Forsberg expects more than 70 percent of the cost will be covered by state and federal funds with the county and city paying the remainder.

In addition to working to line up funding, Forsberg recommended the county proceed soon with an environmental assessment to determine a more precise route and work with the city to make sure right-of-way along the corridor is preserved if development projects are proposed in the area.

Board Chairman Drew Campbell voted for the grant application but said the idea of adding more new roadway makes him nervous because of the ongoing challenge of preserving and maintaining existing roads.

“That’s a concern of mine, and it’s something that’s on my mind quite a bit when I see a project like this,” Campbell said.

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