MANKATO — By the end of this year, the six miles of Highway 14 between North Mankato and Nicollet will have an 8-foot median. By 2020, that stretch will be upgraded to four lanes.
Gov. Mark Dayton led a group of politicians in announcing the strategy for long-sought Highway 14 upgrades Tuesday in Mankato. It was something of a reversal for a stretch of road at first that has failed to appear on the state’s long-term plans before being apparently revived by the governor.
“Gov. Dayton has taken this from the top and said ‘This will happen,’” Congressman Tim Walz said.
Because construction on the four-lane project won’t start until 2017 or 2018 and will take about two years to build, drivers will be living with the interim solution for seven or eight years.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation calls it an “innovative” road design, as it shortens the shoulders to create an 8-foot buffer between the lanes where there is now only a few inches of paint. In the median will be tube-shaped barriers every 50 or 100 feet. They give way and pop back up when hit, and are more a visual reminder than a physical barrier.
They are used elsewhere in the state but will be new to south-central Minnesota.
The median will be created by taking 4 feet from each of the driving lanes, while part of the existing shoulders will be reinforced and added to the lanes.
Jim Swanson, the MnDOT district engineer in Mankato, said losing a few feet of shoulder isn’t a big safety risk.
The plans also call for a pair of rumble strips separating the lanes. All told, the interim project will cost $1.5 million to $3 million.
North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen said he’s excited the project is finally happening.
His concern is that the money spent on the interim project will be wasted with the four-lane expansion. But it appears that won’t happen much because the existing lanes of Highway 14 will become the eastbound pair of lanes for the four-lane expressway. The rumble strips will have to be filled in, which is relatively minor work, Traffic Engineer Scott Thompson said.
The median project is aimed at reducing the head-on crashes that have given the North Mankato to New Ulm section a fatal crash rate of three times higher than comparable highways in Minnesota.
Passing, though, won’t be possible with the large median, and it won’t add capacity. That means the interim solution can’t serve an economic development purpose aside from the construction work itself.
There is still one big unanswered question about the four-way conversion: whether or not it will include a bypass of Nicollet, which would add an estimated $11 million to the price tag. If not, the expressway would likely end just shy of Highway 111.
Whether the bypass happens will depend on whether the state can find more than the $21 million to $25 million currently budgeted, Swanson said.
There was little discussion about when the expressway would move west of Nicollet except to say it would happen eventually.
“We’re not done,” Walz said. “New Ulm to Winona has to be a four-lane, for commerce and for safety.”
The only other budgeted project in this area of Highway 14 is a replacement of a river bridge and nearby intersection in New Ulm.
The first phase of the Highway 14 plan — targeted traffic enforcement to change dangerous driving habits — already has started.
The program uses Minnesota Department of Transportation money to focus enforcement on specific highways for about two weeks at a time, State Patrol Lt. Bill Kruger said. The original plan for this year’s action was to focus on Highway 14 in Blue Earth County, but it has been moved to the North Mankato to Nicollet segment.
There are two more two- or three-week phases of enforcement slated for this year, in July and September. The first such phase, between June 5 and June 16, resulted in 216 traffic stops on this section of Highway 14.
One reason for the enforcement is south-central Minnesota’s relatively low seatbelt usage rate of 73 percent compared to the state average of 93 percent.
Where’s the money?
Because MnDOT has the next five years’ worth of money budgeted, the Highway 14 expansion had to wait until at least 2017.
The money for the expansion hasn’t been budgeted, Swanson said, so no other project was replaced. But the project will take up a sizable chunk of the $46 million a year in state and federal funding the district gets annually.
Data or politics?
It was hard to tell at the news conference to what extent the announcement was driven by political pressure or by data.
Dayton, showing up in sneakers and slacks on his way to inspect Duluth-area flooding, received some of the credit, especially from Walz, the 1st District congressman from Mankato.
A briefing sheet from MnDOT emphasized a safety audit along the North Mankato to New Ulm segment completed earlier this year.
It also said Dayton, working closely with MnDOT and others, “has determined that Hwy. 14 will be four lanes between North Mankato and Nicollet.”
Dayton’s MnDOT commissioner, Tom Sorel, declined to give credit to any particular person, calling it “a collaborative effort.”
Dehen, the North Mankato mayor, partly credited the governor for the advance, saying he “had the wherewithal to finally make a ‘yes’ out of it.”
The politicians left some of the credit for the residents, the media and local officials who have lobbied for the project.
Sen. Kathy Sheran credited the “steady drumbeat you’re always, always, always playing” ... “to draw attention to this corridor.”
Among those advocates is Mankato Council President Mike Laven, who is vice president of the Highway 14 Partnership.
“It’s one step forward,” he said. “We still have a section between Owatonna and Dodge Center that’s going to need to be expanded to four lanes, and certainly all the way to New Ulm.”
The Free Press also ran a series on the dangers of Highway 14 in 2010.