MANKATO — Communities across Highway 14 are readying for a large-scale push to expand the last two-lane section of the highway from Nicollet to New Ulm.

This year's legislative session ended with little new transportation funding, but Highway 14 Partnership officials and area lawmakers say they were especially frustrated more didn't get done to make progress on the highway.

Now, they hope lawmakers will spend more on transportation next year before interest dies down. Only 12 miles out of the 100-mile stretch between New Ulm and Rochester remain a two-lane road. 

Local officials say communities within the Highway 14 Partnership, a group that has worked for decades to expand the highway, are still engaged in advocating for the road. Yet they fear many communities will drop their support as the state has expanded most of Highway 14 to four lanes.

Area lawmakers say they're concerned current transportation funding levels will push off Highway 14 improvements for years.

"Having a paltry $50 million for Corridors of Commerce just isn't enough," Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, said.

Brand voted against the Legislature's transportation bill as he didn't think it did enough to address Highway 14 or Corridors of Commerce, the funding program that's covered Highway 14 improvements over the past few years.

Lawmakers allocated $400 million in Corridors of Commerce funding in 2018, a large chunk of which went toward expanding Highway 14 from Owatonna to Dodge Center.

Local officials had hoped for similar momentum this year to address Nicollet to New Ulm, but they found larger issues at play. The criteria to prioritize Corridors of Commerce projects changed in 2017, which mandated half the projects come from the metro area among other changes.

Highway 14 advocates say Corridors of Commerce criteria needs to change, or potentially revert back to its initial policy, as the program was designed to fund road and bridge projects that improve regional economic development.

The program was founded after The Free Press in 2010 highlighted Highway 14's high rate of accidents from Nicollet to New Ulm.

Despite bipartisan support to fix the highway in 2018, lawmakers couldn't agree on transportation funding this year as Republicans opposed Gov. Tim Walz's proposal to fund more projects through a 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax. In addition, lawmakers disagreed on whether to pass a large-scale infrastructure bill, in which the Highway 14 project could have been included. 

Brand, who introduced a $85 million bill for Highway 14, said he was especially concerned when he heard House and Senate Republican leaders repeatedly say lawmakers took care of Highway 14 last year.

"A lot of constituents still drive that road every day," he said. "It still remains one of the deadliest roads in Minnesota."

Some local officials found a little good news in this year's legislative session, as lawmakers included $25 million in cash for Corridors of Commerce, which allows communities to acquire right-of-way land near the highway.

"That was an important victory for us in a year in which we had status quo generally on transportation," said Patrick Baker, vice president of Greater Mankato Growth. "It still allowed some of that important behind-the-scenes work to take place so that we can be in a better position to take advantage when that larger pot of money becomes available."

The Minnesota Department of Transportation included the Highway 14 expansion on a 10-year list of priority projects should lawmakers fill an estimated $6 billion need to maintain and improve transportation projects over the next 10 years. It's the first time the project has made a priority list since local officials started advocating for an expansion more than 50 years ago.

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