Article: Owatonna officials express frustration over session, urge Legislature to allocate funding for Highway 14

Below is an article published in today’s Owatonna People’s Press. Please view the original version on their website here.

Owatonna officials express frustration over session, urge Legislature to allocate funding for Highway 14
By Ashley Stewart, Owatonna People’s Press

OWATONNA — With a week remaining in the Minnesota Legislature’s session, Owatonna city officials are frustrated with the implications it may have on progress of the four-lane expansion of Highway 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center if a compromise isn’t reached on a comprehensive transportation bill — and one that contains Corridors of Commerce funding.

Corridors of Commerce, a program that aims to complete the missing links and build capacity on the state’s highway corridors, has allocated more than $74 million to the Highway 14 corridor since the first allocations were announced in 2013. And each time, dollars have been allocated for the four-lane expansion between Owatonna and Dodge Center.

“We feel over the last three or four years, Corridors of Commerce has been our most successful tool, so we need to ensure that both the House and the Senate sides put some dollars into [the program],” said Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz. “And we need cash in Corridors of Commerce in order to buy right-of-way and engineering because without the right-of-way purchase, there’s no chance we could get it into the plan because it’s not shovel-ready.”

On Wednesday, the House Republicans presented a proposal that contained a one-time $46 million allocation for Corridors of Commerce in 2017 for right-of-way and design, and the Senate’s revamped proposal presented last week reduced funding for Corridors of Commerce from $800 million to $500 million over the next decade.

The cost to complete the two remaining segments of Highway 14 — the 12.5-mile stretch from Owatonna to Dodge Center and the 12-mile stretch from New Ulm to Nicollet — is $300 million alone.

The price tag of the Owatonna to Dodge Center expansion is estimated at $25 million to $28 million for right-of-way acquisition, $12 million to $15 million for engineering and $115 million to $150 million for construction, while the four-lane expansion between New Ulm to Nicollet is about $15 million for right-of-way acquisition, $9 million to $17 million for engineering and $45 million to $85 million for construction.

“We understand MnDOT has put together a package for the entire state. We’re just a part of it,” said Les Abraham, Owatonna city councilor. “But the only success that we’ve had is through the Corridors of Commerce, to get anything done.”

In 2013, the expansion of Highway 14 east of Owatonna — about a 2.5-mile stretch — was one of 10 projects funded by the Corridors of Commerce program that included $300 million in trunk highway bonds, which could only be used for shovel-ready projects. The project, which began in July 2014, was completed last October.

In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature added $31.5 million from the Trunk Highway Fund to Corridors of Commerce that resulted in an $8.8 million appropriation to be used for right-of-way purchases for the stretch.

“While there’s no guarantee that Corridors of Commerce money would come to Highway 14, like the mayor said, based on past experience, we have had success, and I would certainly expect having success in the future with getting funding out of that program,” said Kevin Raney, Owatonna city councilor.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Highway 14 Partnership called for completion of the remaining two segments of the decades-long expansion of Highway 14 between Rochester and New Ulm — something it believed could get done without the approval of a comprehensive transportation bill thanks to the state’s surplus and its trunk highway bonding capacity — but little progress on a long-term transportation bill has been made.

“The Highway 14 partnership was formed over 30 years ago, and we’re still sitting here today with a large chunk of it not completed,” said Kris Busse, Owatonna city administrator.

Busse said the corridor is a “key component to [the city’s] economic growth” and is a safety concern.

Raney pointed to an accident between a semi-trailer and a motorcycle east of Owatonna on Highway 14 on Thursday that resulted in serious injuries among some of those involved.

“I know there are transportation needs across the state. However, Highway 14 is our major artery for economic growth east and west,” Busse said. “It’s a critical piece and not only a safety piece, a critical economic piece for this whole half of the state.”

Kuntz said the Legislature should understand Highway 14 is a necessity since it spent money last session on Destination Medical Center in Rochester.

“They need a four-lane highway from east and west in order to get to that destination,” he said.

The Legislature has been at odds over a transportation package since last session due to differing opinions of state Democrats and Republicans on how it should be funded. Democrats want to raise the gas tax to pay for billions of dollars of repairs over the next decade, while Republicans, who control the House, say existing taxes and some extra cash will do just fine.

“My fear is that without finding a compromise that…nothing will happen with transportation again in 2016,” Kuntz said.

Legislative leaders stuck to their battle lines on Friday as they prepared to enter the session’s final week after Gov. Mark Dayton said he’ll spend the weekend stitching together a compromise plan to put forward Monday.

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