Marshall Independent / Deb Gau
An interregional group supporting the expansion of Minnesota Highway 23 has had a busy year. But even after the state dedicated bonding dollars this summer to fill in gaps in the four-lane highway, the Highway 23 Coalition doesn’t plan on slowing down. And Lyon County commissioners have decided to join the group’s efforts, with a $1,500 membership.
Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, spoke to Lyon County commissioners during their regular Tuesday meeting. In addition to serving as EDC director, Backman is the secretary and treasurer of the Highway 23 Coalition.
“This past year has been eventful,” Backman said. The coalition was formalized about a year ago, and has grown to more than 90 members, including businesses, cities and counties along the Highway 23 corridor. One of the group’s first goals was to advocate for a continuous four-lane highway between Willmar and Interstate 94 in St. Cloud — and Backman said the coalition rose to the challenge when the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced its latest round of Corridors of Commerce funding recipients in May.
At the time, MnDOT had announced that just four road projects, all close to the Twin Cities metro area, would be receiving Corridors of Commerce funding. The announcement triggered a backlash around greater Minnesota.
Backman said activities like a letter campaign from the coalition helped get $105 million in additional Corridors of Commerce funding for Highway 23 included in the 2018 state bonding bill. The project will cover two remaining segments of two-lane highway between Willmar and St. Cloud: seven miles of highway between New London and Paynesville, and nine miles between Paynesville and Richmond.
Backman said the Highway 23 Coalition won’t stop with just filling the gaps. The group is trying to reach out to communities, businesses and counties all the way from Duluth to South Dakota, and look at other projects in need of attention.
“We think having more partners will strengthen our voice,” Backman said. “We would certainly welcome participation by Lyon County.”
He said adding more voices to the coalition might also help in getting Highway 23 designated as a freight corridor. That in turn would make it possible for Highway 23 to receive federal funding.
Backman said the Highway 23 Coalition board had approved changes to its bylaws, opening up more seats for board members and expanding the definition of the Highway 23 corridor, “To better reflect our current membership.” The group now considers the corridor to run from I-90 in the south to I-35 in the north, Backman said.
Commissioners were positive about the idea of joining the coalition. Lyon County is currently part of the Marshall Area Transportation Group, but Commissioner Charlie Sanow said joining the coalition with a $1,500 annual membership fee might be a good deal.
Commissioners were in favor of joining the Highway 23 Coalition, and nominating Lyon County highway engineer Aaron VanMoer to serve on the coalition board.