West Central Tribune / Shelby Lindrud
WILLMAR — While the Highway 23 Coalition was successful in getting over $100 million to fill the north and south gaps of State Highway 23, it will be years before any construction is done.
“It takes time,” said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission as well as secretary-treasurer of the Highway 23 Coalition.
He spoke during Thursday’s EDC Joint Powers Board meeting.
The gaps are the two remaining sections of Highway 23 between Willmar and Interstate 94 that are still two lanes. The projects will make them four-lane. The south gap is the seven miles between New London and Paynesville and the north gap is the nine miles of two lane between Paynesville and Richmond.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed legislation to add the Highway 23 projects to the Corridors of Commerce funding at the end of May. This followed the Governor’s Fishing Opener at the beginning of May, held in the Willmar Lakes Area, when Dayton’s fishing guide Kelly Morrell discussed the Highway 23 projects with the governor and legislative leaders while on Green Lake.
”It has become lore now I guess,” Backman said.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation will be funding both the north and south gap projects with bonding. However, MnDOT can only borrow so much money every year, and the Highway 23 projects will be spread out. Money for the first gap will be available in 2022, with the second estimated to be in place in 2024. Which gap will be constructed first is unknown, but both projects will probably be done back to back.
”The projects cannot be constructed simultaneously,” Backman said. “Each project will take about two years to construct.”
Before construction will begin, MnDOT will have to purchase right-of-way, which will mean purchasing private property. Land acquisition for the first project would start in 2019.
”You can’t just take people’s property,” Backman said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
With the gap funding from the state secured, the Highway 23 Coalition is turning its attention to other Highway 23 issues. A group of members traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the state’s congressional delegation. The hope is to receive federal funding for the projects as well as get Highway 23 added to the National Highway Freight Network.
”The congressional delegation encouraged the coalition to expand its vision to a border-to-border focus, to include the cities of Duluth and Sioux Falls. We are aiming high here,” Backman said.
The coalition would also like focus on other concerns along Highway 23, like dangerous intersections.
“Beyond the gaps, there are needs along Highway 23,” Backman said.
To bring more members on board, especially north of Waite Park and south of Marshall, Backman has been visiting other cities and counties along Highway 23. In July, he met with seven and in August he has eight meetings scheduled.
He has also been meeting with current members in hopes of having them renew their membership and funding.
The coalition currently has 91 members, made up of cities, counties, economic development organizations and businesses.
”The response has been very good,” Backman said.