One of the largest road projects ever in Blue Earth County is nearing the construction phase.

The upgrade of County Road 17 is expected to cost more than $11.4 million, will extend Madison Avenue as a four-lane street a half-mile farther to the east, will add a quartet of roundabouts to the former Highway 14, is expected to promote economic expansion on the city’s east side, will add a bike trail between Mankato and Eagle Lake and will transform Eagle Lake’s main drag into an urban street. The project should begin by the end of next month.

The Eagle Lake City Council gave final approval for the project this week and the Mankato City Council is expected to do the same Monday, which are the final steps before Blue Earth County settles on a contractor.

“It’s the single biggest, most complicated project the county has done,” said County Engineer Al Forsberg.

Other larger highway upgrades and expansions, such as the Victory Drive extension last decade and the creation of County Road 90 south of Mankato in the 1990s, were done in phases over several years. The four-mile County Road 17 project is being built under a single contract, although its completion will likely stretch into 2014 barring a nearly perfect construction season in 2013 and the absence of any delays in dealing with utility lines.

The route impacts three natural gas transmission lines, power lines and fiber optic cables, which requires coordinated work with various utility companies and can cause problems for an aggressive construction schedule, Forsberg said. Work on the east and west end of the projects will be done first with the middle section waiting until next year unless work is running ahead of schedule.

“Everything will have to fall in place,” he said.

Sections of the road will be closed to everything but local traffic when construction is under way.

That’s expected to cause major disruption in Eagle Lake, but the county has agreed to split the work in the town of 2,400 into two parts with the contractor focusing first on the primary commercial area, said City Administrator Sack Thongvanh. That initial stage stretches from Agency Street through downtown Eagle Lake to City Hall and will include the addition of curb and gutter, storm sewers and decorative downtown street lighting.

“That should be completed by the start of school,” Thongvanh said. “They just wanted to make sure that the part with the main traffic would be completed by the start of the school year.”

The remaining Eagle Lake portion of the upgrade on the city’s west side will include a roundabout at the intersection of 598th Street and County Road 17 (called Parkway Avenue in Eagle Lake) on the city’s western edge. That work is slated to be completed by Nov. 1.

The city’s cost for the project is just $88,200, and the bulk of that reflects extras requested by the city, including new water and sewer extensions crossing Parkway and some expenses related to the new street lighting.

The project also brings a new trail through the city and along the north side of the road all the way to Mankato, where it will provide access to the broader trail system in the Mankato area.

Forsberg said the trail idea makes sense with the towns sharing a school district, many Eagle Lake residents working in the Mankato and the increasingly close economic connection.

“There was quite strong support for it from the beginning,” he said. “We see the two cities growing together. It’s planned that way, it’s zoned that way.”

Construction equipment also will be out in force on the Mankato side later in the spring, focused on the reconstruction of the existing two lanes and the addition of two more all the way to the recently extended County Road 12. A roundabout at that intersection and another at Carver Road are slated to be put in place this construction season, as well.

The center portion of the project probably will come last and probably won’t be wrapped up until next year.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation already has provided just less than $11.4 million for the reconstruction — turn-back funding provided in exchange for the county taking over responsibility for future maintenance. But Forsberg said the bids are likely to come in higher than that early next month because MnDOT’s funding doesn’t account for the additional lanes on the project’s west side, the bike trail and some other work planned for the side streets along the route.

When it’s completed, Forsberg said the new County Road 17 will be a significant improvement in the local transportation network — making for a safer road and serving the eastward expansion of Mankato’s primary retail/commercial area.

“It’s going to be a great investment in the area’s infrastructure,”  he said. “It will provide a good modern link between these two cities.”

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