Lakes Area Review / Macklin Carusa on July 6, 2019
The Highway 23 Coalition ditched the two-lane highway for the skyway for their third annual trip to Washington, D.C. During their three-day trip, spanning June 18-20, the Coalition sought to learn the best strategies to secure federal funding for proposed projects on Highway 23. The delegation included local government officials such as: Chair of Highway 23 Coalition and Board Member for the Kandiyohi County Economic Development Commission Donna Boonstra; Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, County Commissioner Roger Imdieke, County Board Chairman Rollie Nissen, County Public Works Director Mel Odens and Spicer City Administrator Leslie Valiant.
The itinerary was packed.
The Coalition met Minnesota elected officials representing congressional districts that feature Highway 23 as a corridor, including: Reps. Collin Peterson, Pete Stauber, Jim Hagedorn, as well as a congressional aide to Tom Emmer. In addition to the House members, the Coalition met with Mens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, as well as the Director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Caitlin Hughes. Being three-year Washington veterans, the Coalition came prepared, complete with buttons, tote bags and documentation. Because of busy schedules kept by legislators, the Coalition left legislators one simple page outlining their concerns and requests.
With the encouragement of legislators and federal officials, the Coalition left the summit with bold ambition of turning Highway 23 into a four-lane all the way from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. This goal comes in part due to a suggestion by Stauber to seek the membership of Sioux Falls and Superior, so that holdouts serviced by Highway 23 would feel encourages to join the more unified Coalition.
During last year’s meeting with the FHWA, the Coalition informed them of their plan to fill the two-lane gaps between Willmar and St. Cloud. The FHWA suggested that they should instead designate Highway 23 as a Critical Rural Freight Corridor (CRFC), thus opening them up to federal grant money. Instead of focusing on the two-lane gaps within the state, they suggested the CRFC should run from Sioux Falls to Duluth. When the Coalition returned, they met with state officials to obtain a CRFC designation. Subsequently, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has been conducted a statewide freight study, of which members of the Coalition are taking an active role.
Building on lessons learned from the last year’s trip, the Coalition sought further advice from federal officials as to how to designate Highway 23 as a CRFC. In order to be designated a CRFC by the FHWA, the proposed route must meet one or more of the following seven qualifications:
- It is a rural principal arterial roadway and has a minimum of 25% of the annual average daily traffic of the road measured in passenger vehicle equivalency unit from trucks.
- It provides access to every exploration, development, installation or production areas.
- It connects the Primary Highway Freight System or the Interstate System to facilities that handle more than 50,000 20-foot equivalent units per year or 500,000 tons per year of bulk commodities.
- It provides access to a grain elevator, an agricultural facility, a mining facility, a forestry facility or an inter modal facility.
- It connects to an international port of entry.
- It provides access to significant air, rail, water or other freight facilities within the state.
- It is determined by the state to be vital to improving the efficient movement of freight of importance to the economy of the state.
The FHWA also states that first and last mile connectivity is essential to a functioning freight system and encourages states to consider first or last mile connector routes from high-volume freight corridors to key rural freight facilities. This would turn Highway 23 into major artery for freights across the state. According to figures provided by Boonstra, most truckers have to take I-90 from Sioux Falls and then I-35 to Duluth because of weight limits. Though with a CRFC designation, Highway 23 would easily become the preferred rout, shaving 104 miles off the truckers’ haul. Peterson offered to write a letter to MnDOT recommending any designation sought by the Coalition. Both Klobuchar and Smith agree to sign onto the letter along with Emmer, according to Emmer’s aide.
The Coalition can start applying for funding this fall, along as they know the specific designation for which the funding is needed. With federal funding applications due July 15, the Coalition won’t be able to apply for federal grants until next year. The reasons for the proposed four-lane extends beyond just the CRFC designation, the Coalition claims it will also provide greater safety for drivers as well as economic development for the affected areas.
According to figures provided by Boonstra, in the two years since the Coalition was formally organized, 145 serious accidents, including 13 fatalities, have occurred on Highway 23. Of those 145, 37 were in Stearns County, 25 in Kandiyohi County, 23 in Benton County, 16 in Lyon County and less that 10 in other counties along the corridor. “It was eye-opening to them (legislators) to see the statistics on fatalities,” said Boonstra. Additionally, the Coalition sought to find means to fund their 2019 priority projects, which include:
Construction of CSAH (County State-Aid Highway System) 55 Overpass that would connect the new interchange at Highway 23 and County Road 5. The bridge over the BNSF railroad would tie into the upcoming Willmar Wye Railroad project, also providing a direct connection to the City’s Industrial Park.
- Construction fo a four-lane extension of Highway 23 north of the city of Marshall to the city of Green Valley, a distance of 4.5 miles, thus continuing the four-lane infrastructure on the Highway 23 corridor, as well as bringing it closer to connecting with Highway 212.
- Construction of a round-about in the city of Foley where Highway 23 intersects with 8th Avenue (near Foley Public Schools), as well as undertaking a preferred route safety study that would encompass the stretch of Highway 23 between Foley and Milaca. The study would determine the best route for a four-lane road.
- Undertaking an intersection Safety Study at Highway 23 and Highway 7 in Clara City. This study would determine the changes necessary to enhance safety at the intersection. The Coalition’s Board already approved providing $5,000 toward the local match required by MnDOT. Chippewa County as well as the City, who are also Coalition members, agreed to match the donation.
”The most positive thing was being recognized, second was getting new information from the FHW,” said Boonstra. “We felt that we were recognized and valued.”