NEW ULM - The nature of the upcoming improvements to Highway 14 and the steps needed to complete the four-lane expansion of Highway 14 from New Ulm to Rochester were the focus of the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce Hot Topics breakfast on Friday.
Minnesota Department of Transportation-District 7 Engineer Greg Ous provided the official update on the improvements to the highway.
He said that MnDOT was pleased that it recently had been able to announce plans to expand the section of Highway 14 between North Mankato and Nicollet to four lanes sometime in 2017 or 2018, along with installing immediate safety measures in the section this year. In other business, he said MnDOT continued to focus on trying to maximize the number of projects it can complete while being faced with mounting costs and dwindling revenues from the state's gas tax.
J.D Burton, an attorney with the lobbying firm Flaherty & Hood, P.A. and representative of the Highway 14 Partnership, said the recent announcement that some of the four-lane expansion from North Mankato to New Ulm would be completed was a major victory for the organization. He said the highly public pressure on MnDOT over the project was instrumental in the success. He said they would remain focused on the ultimate goal of completing four-lane expansion for the rest of the Highway 14 two-lane segments. He said they could look forward to a day when Highway 14 had four lanes all the way from New Ulm to Rochester.
He also mentioned that even harder work would been needed in the future to finish the project. He explained that two factors that increased the difficulty in their lobbying work have been MnDOT dwindling funds and the Minnesota Legislature's recent ban on earmarking for specific projects.
Moving forward but understanding the challenge
Following the event, MnDOT Highway 14 Project Manager Zach Tess answered questions about the details and challenges in the upcoming safety measures for the Nicollet to North Mankato segment of Highway 14. The plan calls for redrawing the existing highway to place an eight-foot buffer zone between the two lanes of traffic with tough barrier cable in the middle. He explained that the measures are designed to prevent the primary cause of fatal accidents on Highway 14: head-on collisions from vehicles drifting over the center.
The new safety design will come at the cost of preventing all passing on the segment of Highway 14 until the four-lane expansion is completed. Tess admitted it would have a negative impact on several types of transportation.
First, the safety measures come at the cost of narrowing the highway shoulders. Tess said it now will be more dangerous to attempt bicycling down the highway until the four-lane expansion. He said it would ultimately come down to the individual's judgment.
Second, he said the new design would allow large agricultural vehicles to be able to use the highway during harvest season, but it would likely create long lines of vehicles during the trip due to no passing. Similarly, he said that there would likely be a minor problem of forcing all police vehicles parked on the side of the road to have to move when the agricultural vehicles proceed through due to limited space.
Third, he said that the no passing aspect of the safety measures would cause some minor complications for emergency vehicles using highway during agricultural vehicle trips or heavy traffic. However, he said that the periodic openings in the center dividers for roads would provide plenty of opportunities for emergency vehicles to get around slow vehicles.
Tess said MnDOT recognized the limitations of the safety improvements, but that the department felt the severity of the accident rate on the segment of highway demanded some action from them. He said MnDOT would be work on educating the public about all related concerns with the highway to minimize any problems. He said all the problems would be eliminated when the four-lane expansion is ultimately completed.
Tess said the construction for the safety measures is scheduled to begin on Sept. 24. He said the work will not require a detour. Instead, he said the plan is to close small portions of one lane while flagging traffic around on the other lane. He said the change should only slow down traffic around the area of construction, but not on the rest of the highway. He said that both lanes will be made open on Highway 14 during the peak traffic times in the morning and afternoon.
In other business, Ous said the roundabout on Highway 14 at the new Menards site would likely open to through traffic next Thursday. He said that MnDOT recognized people's concern with using the new roadway. He said it would not take too long for people to become used to the new traffic situation. He said that several designs in the roundabout would also help in traveling on it, such as angling where the road enters the roundabout so that turning the wrong way would be difficult.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.