MANKATO - After decades of accidents and fatalities, one of the Highway 14's deadliest segments will get long-sought safety upgrades.
Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) announced Tuesday in Mankato that the segment of Highway 14 between North Mankato and Nicollet will receive a four-lane expansion by 2017 or 2018. Additionally, safety improvements will be completed on the stretch by this winter.
MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel received applause when he said the four-lane project was guaranteed in five to six years. The project will cost $21 million to $35 million. MnDOT will provide $21 million to $23 million, and the Legislature will allocate the rest. The project will take two years to construct.
Staff photo by Josh Moniz
Gov. Mark Dayton, center, accompanied by 1st District Congressman Tim Walz and State Sen. Kathy Sheran, presented an improvement plan for Highway 14 between North Mankato and Nicollet on Tuesday in Mankato.
Whether MnDOT builds an $11 million bypass at Nicollet or ends the four-lanes just before the town will depend on how much the Legislature funds the project.
In addition to the four-lane project, MnDOT will complete safety improvement work on Highway 14 before this winter. The road will have its lines redrawn to allow an 8-foot median between the two lanes while work will be done to "beef up" the road's shoulders.
The road's shoulders will diminished in size. The median will consist of vertical tubes down the middle that will rise into the air when bumped to give drivers a visual warning. The rest of the median will consist of rumble strips. The space between the lanes is designed to keep minor driving mistakes from becoming head-on accidents.
Swanson said the improvements won't be duplicate work because it will be done in a way to set up the eventual four-lane project. He said the only unknown factor is whether the four-lanes will route through or around Nicollet.
Finally, MnDOT will sponsor targeted increases in law enforcement along Highway 14 to reduce dangerous driving habits.
The project is a sudden reversal for MnDOT after officials indicated last April that funding constraints essentially took a four-lane expansion off the table. That position was presented during MnDOT's safety audit of Highway 14 from North Mankato to Nicollet, which has three times the state average for fatal crashes on similar roads. This data dramatically outpaced previous fatal statistics for Highway 14. Seventeen fatalities occurred on Highway 14 since 2000, compared to 13 deaths in the I-35 bridge collapse. Four-lane advocates claimed this comparison proved Highway 14 was inherently unsafe and stifled regional economic growth.
MnDOT argued that falling gas tax revenues and increasing construction costs limited it to only maintaining existing infrastructure with "low-cost, high-benefit" project. MnDOT officials planned to leave Highway 14 in its 20-year construction plan.
Instead, MnDOT advocated small-scale safety improvement projects until four-lane funding arrived sometime in the future. MnDOT presented a new Corridor Investment Management Strategy funding program to specifically push the smaller projects. Highway 14 area residents and regional legislators publicly rebuked the plan.
Tuesday's announcement drew support from Highway 14 advocates, but also criticism about whether MnDOT could have funded the project sooner.
MnDOT's funding will come from the Mankato-based District 7 regional office's $46 million in annual funding. What exact funds will be shifted remains unclear.
MnDOT District 7 Transportation Engineer Jim Swanson said the funds will be pulled from future unallocated funding for 2016 and beyond. He said the funds may have originally gone to various safety improvements around the district, but will now be rerouted for the four-lane project.
The reasons for MnDOT's change of heart remains unclear. Dayton said the first momentum on the project came from an April meeting that State Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) and State Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato) organized between himself and Sorel.
First District Congressman Tim Walz attributed the project's realization to Dayton, primarily for bringing a political focus to force movement towards improvements.
"Gov. Dayton has taken this from the top and said 'This will happen,'" said Walz.
Dayton responded that he considered it a collaborative effort.
MnDOT officials maintained that the project was only driven by the safety audit, which "validated the concerns about Highway 14."
still looking forward
Although all officials at the press conference praised the four-lane project as a major accomplishment, they cautiously added that there was still a strong need to complete the rest of the four-lane expansions for Highway 14. No immediate plans have been made with MnDOT yet on the remaining two-lane segments of Highway 14.
Morrow said that the planned improvements were the best he could have hoped for. He plans to continue pushing for a complete four-lane highway to New Ulm.