Zelle details need for highway investment plan for state

NEW ULM – Minnesota needs to invest in transportation to support Minnesota Minnesota business growth and ensure the state continues to be an attractive location for companies to expand, Minnesota’s top transportation official said Monday in New Ulm.

“We need to go from fixes to solutions for the next 20 years,” state Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said Monday at the New Ulm Civic Center.

“Without proper transportation investments, business and industry won’t survive… Almost nine percent of Minnesota bridges are structurally deficient. Our state highway system pavement condition ranks 38th nationally.”

Zelle said people are driving more now, but because vehicles are more fuel efficient, gas tax funds don’t even keep pace with inflation and are not indexed to inflation. If bridges become too deficient, they must be closed until repairs are made.

“Ask people in the Duluth area about that,” Zelle said. “We closed I-35 southbound last week because a bridge was so corroded. It’ll take three to four weeks to repair the bridge foundation.”

He said the proposed U.S. Highway 14 four-lane expansion project from New Ulm to Nicollet is not currently in MnDOT’s 20-year plan due to a $12 billion statewide funding shortfall.

Ten days ago, Gov. Mark Dayton and MnDOT announced 10 highway projects totaling $300 million will be funded via the state’s new Corridors of Commerce program.

Approved projects, selected by MnDOT from 100 projects, include a $15 to $25 million four-lane Highway 14 expansion from North Mankato to Nicollet with a $2.5 million Nicollet bypass including new Highway 99 and 11 interchanges designed to improve safety. Originally scheduled for 2017, the Nicollet to North Mankato project is scheduled to begin in 2015.

Zelle said MnDOT will determine whether the Nicollet bypass will have overpass interchanges or right turn-only interchanges with turnaround lanes or other alternatives for vehicles to go the opposite direction after turning onto Highway 14. “All options including overpasses are on the table,” he said.

Other funded Corridors of Commerce projects include $16 to $20 million for Highway 14 four-lane expansion from Owatonna to Dodge Center and and $13 to $19 million for State Highway 23 passing lanes from I-90 to Willmar.

“The state cannot afford not to do highway improvement projects… Truck freight is projected to increase by 30 percent by 2030,” Zelle added. “Return on investment averages 250 percent, lowers vehicle operating costs, travel time and improves safety. We have to maintain roads. It’s too costly to wait till they fall apart… We all have a stake in this… We have lots of projects but little funding available now.”

Highway improvement funding options include fuel and local and state sales taxes and vehicle registration fees, vehicle mileage-based taxes and federal funding, Zelle said.

New Ulm truck line owner Florian Dittrich said his trucks haul hogs daily to the Austin Hormel plant, using Highway 14. “Hogs that get crippled and die on the highway now become ours when they get to the plant,” Dittrich said. He complained of state transportation funding that wound up in the state’s general fund.

Zelle said dedicated transportation funding is imperative. “Other fund surpluses can help transportation funding too,” he added.

For more information, visit www.minnesotago.org

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com

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