After years of impasses, funding shortages and contention, state officials are optimistic that they will finally be able to finish widening one of the most dangerous highways in Minnesota.
More than 100 people — community members, first responders and local government officials — gathered inside the Nicollet Fire Department station on Friday morning to cheer a $93 million funding proposal announced by Gov. Tim Walz. It would expand the last two-lane stretch of U.S. Highway 14 between New Ulm, Minn., and Rochester, Minn., converting it to a divided four-lane highway.
Walz said the proposal, if approved, would provide a funding path to complete the final 12.5-mile portion at a cost of $93 million. Overall, the U.S. Highway 14 expansion project has been going on for the last six decades.
“As someone who has driven countless miles on this road, as someone who has lost a dear friend and neighbor on this road, and now as this state’s governor, this issue is personal to me, and it’s personal to everyone in this area of the state,” said Walz, who represented southern Minnesota as a member of Congress. “We are pursuing every possible option to get this road built out to four lanes and keep Minnesotans safe.”
Under the plan, the Minnesota Department of Transportation would apply for a $36 million federal loan that comes at an interest rate of slightly over 1 percent. The state Legislature would need to set up a special fund that would be used to repay the loan. The money would come from state fees paid by operators of overweight trucks.
The project aims to curb the numerous vehicle crashes and fatalities that happened along the corridor. It’s a highly traveled area with semitrucks passing through to deliver goods and farmers who depend on the roads to bring their products to market.
U.S. Highway 14 is also the main road that many residents from New Ulm, Courtland and Nicollet in southern Minnesota use to commute to Mankato and back home. More than 150 people died on the highway in the last 60 years. Two of those deaths happened in January, not even more than a day apart. Minnesota will be asking for about $36 million for Highway 14.
The segment of highway from New Ulm to Nicollet is currently in the design phase, but it’s not scheduled or funded. A Highway 14 New Ulm to Nicollet Task Force was created in December 2017 with membership including business leaders, city and county officials and Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School officials.
Recommendations from the task force were given to MnDOT District 7 back in June 2018. While the project lacked funding, the department advanced the design and environmental processes so that the project was shovel-ready when money became available.
MnDOT stressed Friday that it's also pursuing other federal grants to cover the cost of the project. Earlier this month, the agency announced it's seeking a $50 million "Rebuilding America" grant for the project.
Friday's announcement was also personal for MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who lost a family member to a crash on Highway 14, and strongly supports more funding to finish the four-lane expansion.
No matter what federal money is secured, Kelliher said that MnDOT is committed to funding any gaps. MnDOT so far has committed $20.7 million to the project. If the federal loan comes through, plans are to let the project in fall 2021 with construction to start in 2022 or 2023.
“We all know someone who lost a loved one or been impacted by a tragedy on Highway 14,” Kelliher said. “This is one of the most dangerous highways in Minnesota. The governor has long been an advocate of this project, and MnDOT is committed to getting it done.”
Wait and see
Those who live in Nicollet know the dangers of Highway 14, including Mayor Fred Froehlich, who lost his uncle to a crash there. Froehlich’s father also got into a T-bone crash, but survived.
Over the years, Froehlich and other mayors from the surrounding communities have continued to push for funding to fix the highway, but always felt that their bubbles burst each time money didn’t come through.
“One word — money. There’s never enough money to go around,” Froehlich said. “It looks like we finally found a way to get this loan out. In the past, that’s the whole thing. It’s money and there was never enough money to go around. It looks like we’re finally going to get it right.”
Having also served on the fire department, Froehlich has seen the emotional toll first responders have experienced helping out at crash sites on the highway, and was disappointed every year when funding would not come through.
“They have to deal with these fatalities, these deaths,” he said. “One of them was a 2015 graduate from the high school in Nicollet here. We also lost the young senior from our high school the day before. My uncle was killed on this highway, my father survived this. In January, we lost two more people on that highway within 26 hours and it needs to be fixed. I think we’re gonna get it done.”
While there’s careful optimism, some residents along the corridor remain skeptical.
Bill Aufderheide, 63, a lifelong New Ulm resident, carried his doubts about how much the state would invest into the remainder of the project. He worked as a construction project manager and said he felt cynical about what he considered to be “empty promises.”
For years, Aufderheide said he tried to be involved in the process of calling on the state to invest more dollars into the Highway 14 expansion project by joining coalitions that formed in New Ulm and in surrounding communities, but to no avail.
“I have lived long enough to have heard many politicians promise to fix this road,” Aufderheide said. “They really have no way to fulfill their promises. The decisions rest with MnDOT. They have their own priorities and processes. There is always a reason somewhere else needs the dollars more. ... I will believe it when I see the project awarded.”
Walz said that the project itself had gone on “far too long,” and that families “have every right to be skeptical.”
State legislation to allow for the federal loan is set to be introduced on Monday. The project has drawn bipartisan support.