NICOLLET — Hopes for a fast-tracked completion of the Highway 14 four-lane expansion were dashed Tuesday when federal officials announced the project was not among the $900 million in grants awarded as part of a nationwide competition.
For more than half a century, south-central Minnesotans have been pushing for the evolution of Highway 14 from a crash-prone, truck-heavy rural highway into a modern divided expressway from New Ulm to Rochester. Most of the goal has been accomplished, with only two 12-mile segments of two-lane now remaining. One of those — in the Claremont area east of Owatonna — has been funded and construction began this year.
Without the federal grant, prospects for completing the final segment of expressway west of Nicollet are dim. Because of financial constraints, the Minnesota Department of Transportation does not have the $85 million project even on its 20-year construction plan.
Advocates of the project said Tuesday’s announcement by federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was very disappointing.
“Awarding Highway 14 with a 2019 BUILD Grant would have been a great example of the federal government partnering with Minnesota to address the deadliest stretch of road in the state,” said a statement from state Rep. Jeff Brand of St. Peter, whose legislative district includes the 12-mile segment.
In applying for the maximum federal grant of $25 million, MnDOT pledged to reshuffle its construction priorities to find the $60 million in remaining funding to complete the project by 2023. There was an outside chance the work would have been expedited even further — targeting completion for 2021.
So the failure to earn a grant transformed the timeline for completion of the expressway from two or three years to potentially two or three decades.
The U.S. Department of Transportation approved 55 projects in 35 states through its Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD grant, program. The announcement stated that selection criteria were based on “safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, state of good repair, environmental sustainability, innovation and partnerships with a broad range of stakeholders.”
Based on the history of the BUILD grant program and its predecessor (TIGER grants), the most likely reason that Highway 14 advocates would be left disappointed was because another Minnesota project had edged it out. MnDOT also had submitted grant applications for a new interchange at Highway 52 and Interstate 90 near Rochester and for improvements to Interstate 94 between Monticello and Albertville.
Odds appeared to be strong that one of the Minnesota projects would be funded. The state received at least one federal grant through the program in seven of the past 10 years — 10 grants in all. In the 2018 round of grants, federal officials approved funding for 49 of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.
But Minnesota and more than a dozen other states were shut out this year.
Funds sent to the Upper Midwest went to South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. South Dakota received nearly $19 million for a new interchange on I-29 in Brookings; Iowa’s two grants totaled nearly $30 million for riverfront, trail and road projects in Des Moines and Dubuque; and Wisconsin received $2.4 million for road and culvert repairs on an Indian reservation in the northwestern part of the state.
A few states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and North Carolina — received three grants each, with Florida’s $62 million leading the way.
This year was the final year of the BUILD grant competition under existing federal appropriations. Draft appropriations bills covering transportation, housing and urban development contain additional funding for the program, but the potential for another grant competition in 2020 will depend on the Democratic-controlled House and Republican Senate agreeing on legislation.
In the meantime, MnDOT will continue to focus on affordable safety upgrades to Highway 14, according to a statement issued by the agency’s Mankato-based District 7: “While we are disappointed our application for a BUILD grant was not awarded, we will continue working on solutions to increase safety on Highway 14.”
The Highway 14 Partnership — the coalition of cities, counties and businesses along the corridor — will turn its sights from Washington, D.C., to St. Paul as it continues its decades-long quest to complete the expressway, according to Mankato City Council member Karen Foreman, the president of the partnership.
“We have made huge progress on Highway 14 safety and expansion in recent years, but only when legislators from both parties have come together to put safety over politics,” Foreman said in a statement. “We call on Gov. Walz and the Legislature to find a way to finish this final phase of Highway 14 expansion so that we can finally drive on four lanes all the way from New Ulm to Rochester.”