Highway 14 Partnership rep updates public on legislation

NEW ULM — The Minnesota Legislature has three proposals for road improvements this session, but only two provide funding opportunities for Highway 14.

Shane Zahrt, representing the Highway 14 Partnership, visited New Ulm and Mankato Thursday to provide updates on various transportation proposals in the legislation that impact Highway 14.

The three proposals are from Gov. Tim Walz, the DFL-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate.

Zahrt said the Walz and the House plans are similar. Both plans continue the annual $25 million appropriation for Corridors of Commerce. This annual appropriation was originally approved in 2017.

Both plans call for a 20 cent gas tax increase. The difference in the two gas tax approaches is Walz’s plan phases in the increase through 10 cent increases over two years and the House plan phases in the tax by five cent increases over four years.

Another difference is, the governor’s plan also includes a list of Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) road projects to target in the next 10 years. The Highway 14 expansion from Nicollet to New Ulm into a four lane is on the project list.

Zahrt said the House plan does not call out Highway 14 specifically, but aims to put an additional 300 million in new trunk highway bonds for Corridors of Commerce starting in 2022. This increases the chance of the Highway 14 expansion receiving funding.

Zahrt said based on how the Corridor of Commerce legislation is written, road projects like Highway 14 would need to reapply for funding every time more money is appropriated. The Highway 14 project would need to be re-scored and compete with other road projects.

The scoring method was changed in 2017, but the results led to all the Corridor of Commerce funding going to roads within 40 miles of U.S. Bank Stadium, with no funding going to Greater Minnesota. Additional changes in project scoring is expected.

Whether Highway 14 receives direct funding or is funded through Corridors of Commerce, Zahrt saw this as positive step.

In contrast to the governor and House plans, the Senate’s plan is resistant to raising taxes and instead uses general fund and surplus money to invest in roads.

The Senate plan provides no new funding for roads and cuts the annual $25 million appropriation to Corridors of Commerce. The Senate bill does earmark funding for a Highway 212 expansion, but no other projects.

“Because they don’t put significant new money into the system, we wind up with the same situation we’ve been in past years,” Zahrt said. “Highway 14, Nicollet to New Ulm, is not in the 20 year plan, nor is there is an alternative avenue for Corridors of Commerce to get at it.”

Zahrt said the governor and the House have different ways of funding roads, but both provide a path forward for Highway 14.

“Whatever passes this session, hopefully there is more money in the system,” Zahrt said. “Whether it is Corridors of Commerce or some other mechanism, there needs to be a path forward for expansion projects like Highway 14 to be a success.”

There is a less than a month left in the 2019 Minnesota legislative session. Zahrt is optimistic a compromise will be reached between the three proposals, but with the Senate’s proposal so far apart from the governor and the House proposals, he suspects a special session will be called.