West Central Tribune / Steve Ammerman and Kelly Boldan
Since 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, west central Minnesota residents have dreamed of four-lane highway access to this region. This regional center still remains the only one in the state without four-lane access.
Now more than 60 years later, a full four-lane access connection to the federal Interstate Highway system is within reach. The 2018 state bonding bill includes $101 million to build the remaining four-lane gaps along Minnesota Highway 23 on either side of Paynesville.
For decades, west central Minnesota residents campaigned to make U.S. Highway 12 a four-lane corridor into the region. Stiff resistance from Long Lake and Orono area residents along with the Metropolitan Council eventually derailed any major four-lane improvements to Highway 12. It is ironic now that those same communities have close four-lane access via the last Interstate 394 extension.
By 1996, west central Minnesota residents shifted their target to connecting state Highway 23 via four-lane access to Interstate 94. After years of work by many individuals, there is now appropriate state funding and a plan to complete the two Highway 23 gaps within years.
The Highway 23 focus began in late 1996 when a Highway 23 Road Rally was organized sending a caravan of vehicles along the highway to Richmond and back to Willmar. Organized by Willmar businessman Bob Dols and supported by the West Central Tribune, a caravan of nearly 100 vehicles traveled the route in support. Rollie Swenson, Paul London and Dean Johnson were at the first meeting in St. Paul to seeking discussion of Highway 23 improvements.
Throughout the past 22 years, several editions of the Highway 23 Coalition continued the lobbying efforts for the four-lane connection completion. They succeeded winning approval for multiple stages of construction: the Willmar bypass, the Willmar-Spicer-New London section, the Paynesville bypass and Richmond to I-94 segment.
Sincere appreciation goes to the many individuals, businesses and communities that have helped support and fund the Highway 23 Coalition work. Certainly playing a strong role in the latest effort were Aaron Backman for coordinating, Jason Duininck for chairing the legislative group, Mel Odens for continued work with state and federal transportation officials and current Rep. Dave Baker and Dean Urdahl and Sen. Andrew Lang for their continued support.
We would be remiss in not thanking all the past legislators from the region and Minnesota Department of Transportation officials who have worked hard for decades to complete the four-lane Highway 23 project.
Finally, a special thanks to local resident and fishing guide Kelly Morrell who spoke to his captive audience of Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka on his boat on Green Lake during the Governor’s Fishing Opener last month. He spoke of the need of Highway 23 gap completions and the loss of Highway 23 accident victim Nathaniel Shumaker, 11, of New London recently. It struck home the importance of completing the Highway 23 gaps. They agreed to support the funding need this year and they did.
It will take a couple of years before construction occurs. The funding will make it possible to begin the study and design work needed before construction begins on the Highway 23 gaps.
Even then the work on Highway 23 is not finished and the Highway 23 Coalition is not stopping.
There are improvement needs – turn lanes, j-turns, passing lanes and such – to the southeast of Willmar through Raymond, Clara City, Granite Falls to Marshall and beyond. There are also needs between St. Cloud and Interstate 35 and Duluth.
Filling the Highway 23 gaps project completion will be a major step forward for Willmar and the region. It demonstrates what great things can be accomplished when residents, businesses, communities and government work together.
This editorial is the opinion of the West Central Tribune’s Editorial Board of publisher Steve Ammerman and editor Kelly Boldan.