West Central Tribune / Anne Polta
WILLMAR — Local and regional leaders reacted with anger, frustration and disappointment Tuesday to a list of Corridors of Commerce transportation funding awards that concentrates the money in and around the metro area.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation made its announcement Tuesday of the four projects chosen for funding. Two are for Highway 494 in the Twin Cities, one is for Highway 169 in Elk River and the fourth project is for Highway 94 between St. Michael and Albertville.
In all, $417 million was awarded.
Absent from the list: Minnesota Highway 23, for which regional leaders have long sought improvement, as well as dozens of other projects around the state.
MnDOT said in its announcement Tuesday that the projects selected for funding were split evenly between urban and Greater Minnesota.
But outstate leaders didn’t see it that way. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities made its frustration known in a statement, issued Tuesday, that called it “a massive failure” by MnDOT to address transportation needs statewide.
The Coalition demanded immediate action by the Legislature to suspend MnDOT’s decision so the program can be re-evaluated and brought back in line with its original purpose.
“Corridors of Commerce was clearly designed to be [a] statewide program aimed at connecting regional corridors to one another and to the metro area,” said Dave Smiglewski, president of the Coalition and mayor of Granite Falls.
“There is far more to Minnesota than a 40-mile radius around U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from looking at the 2018 awards,” he said.
“Disappointment” was the word Aaron Backman used to describe the lack of funding for the Highway 23 project.
As executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and secretary/treasurer of the Highway 23 Coalition, Backman had rallied regional forces to lobby for funding to complete the two four-lane gaps between New London and Interstate 94.
He thought the project had a good chance of being funded this time around.
“We were ranked very high,” Backman said. “We viewed our project as very strong.”
While congratulating the metro-area projects that were funded, Backman said it’s “still kind of a shock” there was no funding for six of the eight MnDOT districts.
Backman said he’s not giving up.
He and about a dozen members of the Highway 23 Coalition will go to Washington, D.C., this month to ask the Minnesota congressional delegation about federal funding.
Backman said the coalition is also supporting a proposed state constitutional amendment to dedicate existing sales tax on auto parts for roads and bridges in Minnesota.
Several Republican legislators criticized the funding decision.
Completing the final single-lane stretch of Highway 23 between Willmar and Interstate 94 is vital for the economy of the region, said Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia.
“It is tremendously disappointing to me that MnDOT chose to fund Corridors of Commerce projects solely in the metropolitan area instead of focusing on statewide balance … ” Lang said.
Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, called it “an outrage.”
“We gave an incredible amount of money to this program thinking at least some of Greater Minnesota’s highway issues would be addressed,” he said.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, joined the chorus of disappointment.
“It’s baffling that there’s 86,000 square miles in our state, and MnDOT chooses only projects within 50 miles of the Twin Cities,” he said. “If all potential projects are only graded on traffic volume, rural areas of the state will never make the cut. Put simply: the scoring methods didn’t recognize the requirement for regional balance.”
Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said he understood the complaints.
“We also are disappointed that some of the projects that we considered of great critical nature” did not rank high enough for funding, Zelle said.
The department uses “very objective criteria and an objective scoring system” to determine what segments of highway get funded, Zelle said.
Rural highways Minnesota 23 and U.S. 14 are next on the greater Minnesota list, he said, after the Elk River and St. Michael segments.
MnDOT solicited project recommendations from the public in January. The initial list contained 299 recommendations for funding. This was subsequently narrowed down to 172 proposed projects with a total cost of $5.5 billion.
Recommended projects were then scored and ranked, using eligibility and selection criteria that included the proposed project’s return on investment, economic impact, freight efficiency, safety improvement, regional connections, policy objectives and community consensus.
Fifty percent of the funding had to be spent in Greater Minnesota and 50 percent had to be spent in the MnDOT Metro District, made up of the seven-county metro area plus Chisago County.
Even though the Elk River and St. Michael projects are near the Twin Cities, they technically are in greater Minnesota, Zelle said, and the department needs to use the same criteria from year to year.
According to the scoresheet released by MnDOT, 40 of the 50 top-scoring recommendations were in MnDOT’s Metro District.
The conversion of Highway 23 from two lanes to four between Willmar and Interstate 94 made the top 50 but was not funded.
The three projects at the bottom of the list were all in southwestern Minnesota: replacement of a railroad bridge on Highway 212 in Granite Falls, construction of a passing lane on Highway 23 from New London to Paynesville, and construction of a Highway 23 “super 2” from New London to Paynesville.