ST. PAUL — If Thursday’s House Transportation Committee hearing is any indication, the long, tortuous path to complete the four-lane expansion of Highway 14 between Rochester and New Ulm is going to end with a short, smooth downhill run.
A bipartisan plan to construct a four-lane expressway between Nicollet and New Ulm by 2023 was unanimously approved by the Transportation Committee, the only debate being the best way to move the legislation most quickly to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz.
“This bill is the closest we’ve ever come to completing this project,” said Mankato Council member Karen Foreman, the president of the Highway 14 Partnership. “We’re ecstatic about it, just ecstatic.”
The effort to get the highway expanded to four lanes goes back to the middle of the last century with the first piece having been built in 1959. More sections of expressway were added in fits and starts over the decades, the pace of progress picking up when cities, counties and companies along Highway 14 formed the lobbying partnership in 1998.
But an expansion of the final 12.5-mile segment of two-lane from the western edge of Nicollet to New Ulm is not on MnDOT’s 20-year construction plan due to a lack of funding. Last week, Walz and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher announced a new strategy.
If authorized by the Legislature, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will apply for a $36 million federal loan that currently carries an interest rate of less than 1%. Federal transportation officials have given assurances that the loan will be approved.
That loan would finance more than 40% of the $92.7 million cost of building the new four-lane segment, which will involve a northern bypass of Courtland and new interchanges at Courtland and Nicollet County Road 37 on the southeast side of New Ulm. Another $36 million has been committed to the project by state and local governments, including $3.5 million pledged by Nicollet County, Kelliher told the committee.
MnDOT hopes the remaining $20.7 million will be covered by federal grants the agency is applying for. But even if those grants are rejected in part or entirely, MnDOT is committed to reallocating planned spending to finance the remainder of the Highway 14 project.
“We believe we can (approve a contractor) in 2021 and be in the ground in ‘22,” Kelliher said. “And it will be two cycles of construction to get the project done.”
First, though, the Legislature needs to give its blessing. Legislation being sponsored by Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, authorizes MnDOT to borrow the money through the federal program and creates a dedicated fund for repaying the loan — a fund that will tap about a third of the $4 million in fees the state collects from overweight trucks.
“We have found, after exhaustive research, a way to fund Highway 14,” Brand said in introducing the bill to the committee. “It’s really important that we get the project moving and done this year. We’ve got bipartisan support. We’ve got the support of the Senate. The governor supports the bill. ... So we really want to move this bill as fast as possible.”
With Reps. Frank Hornstein and Paul Torkelson as co-sponsors of Brand’s bill, that was not a problem on Thursday. Hornstein of Minneapolis is the House Transportation Committee chairman and Torkelson of Lake Hanska is the lead Republican on the committee.
Torkelson praised Kelliher for her efforts: “Your dedication to the cause is greatly appreciated.”
He mentioned that federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, part of the Trump administration, was responsible for establishing the extremely low interest rates for loans going to rural highway projects. And he said the bipartisan effort to fund the expansion of the other remaining 12.5-mile segment of two-lane Highway 14 near Dodge Center, which broke ground last year, made it possible to concentrate entirely on the Nicollet-to-New Ulm finale.
“We’re fortunate, and we’re going to take advantage of it,” Torkelson said.
Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, noted the inter-party cooperation and the willingness of officials from local governments, the state and the federal government to work together to get a long-needed project completed.
“That’s how politics and government should work,” Petersburg said.
The hearing was reminiscent of countless others through the decades in one way. Elected officials from towns along Highway 14 spoke in emotional terms about the deaths and injuries caused by crashes on a two-lane roadway shared by farmers, commuters, school buses and a large number of heavy trucks. Courtland Mayor Al Poehler told of how the heavy traffic endangers children trying to reach city parks, disrupts local businesses and leaves the town’s volunteer firefighters as the first responders at horrific crashes. Others spoke of the highway’s critical importance to local and regional economies.
The difference this time — it didn’t appear the testifiers needed to persuade anyone.
The only debate was whether to send the bill straight to the House Ways and Means Committee — the final stop before a vote by the entire House — or whether it should go to the Capital Investment Committee first, which has a heavy load of legislation to plow through this legislative session. Brand said he preferred to run it through each committee, although he promised to ask the chairwoman of the Capital Investment Committee if she would be willing to bump the bill up the waiting list.
Before the committee unanimously agreed to follow Brand’s request, Hornstein noted that he’s been hearing about the Highway 14 expansion project every session since he first arrived at the Capitol 18 years ago.
“Today, I think we’re really taking a giant step forward in completing a project that people have literally talked about for decades,” Hornstein said, smiling broadly. “... It’s good to have a day like this.”