The future of transportation improvements may be emerging on a short stretch of highway in Scott County.
And it’s a future some will find as troubling as others find satisfying.
A single deep-pocketed entity is writing a check for a new lane of freeway on Hwy. 169 in Shakopee, and the city’s mayor is thrilled. A wealthy donor is “extremely helpful in moving projects to the top of the list,” Brad Tabke said.
But that’s just what raises eyebrows for others.
“Any time that available money allows a private preference to trump the public interest,” said Curt Johnson, former chairman of the Metropolitan Council, “there’s a question that needs an answer.”
The lane will ease the flow through heavy traffic leading to two major entertainment destinations, Mystic Lake Casino and Canterbury Park. The donor is the owner of the casino, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.
Without that money, the state would not be pursuing the project, since it is not included in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s plans, said Jon Solberg, MnDOT’s south metro planner.
Instead, engineers plan to complete the project’s design this year and construction will start in spring of 2015.
By many accounts, traffic on Hwy. 169 can be maddening for Shakopee-area commuters, as well as outsiders heading for entertainment venues.
“Every morning and every evening, it backs up,” Tabke said. “It’s just congestion.”
About 65,000 cars travel daily on the segment of road near the project, and projections indicate a 14 percent increase in traffic by 2030, said Dan Lonnes, project manager.
The stretch of road has been rated a service level of D on an A-to-F scale and is operating at near capacity during rush hour, said Lonnes, who is also an engineer with Bolton and Menk, a private firm, and has worked with the tribe on road projects for a decade.
In Minnesota and across the country, transportation dollars are increasingly scarce. The state Transportation Department faces a $12 billion deficit in what it needs to maintain the existing highway system, Solberg said.
In 10 years, MnDOT will be able to afford only highway maintenance projects, not expansion, said Steve Elkins, who leads the Met Council’s transportation committee.
That’s why in the future, it’s likely that more businesses that want to see specific road projects done are going to say, “If I want this improvement, the only way it’s going to happen is if I help finance it,” Elkins said.
Johnson concurred. “If you look forward, given the tight forecasts … some mixture of private and public financing is probably the only way we’re going to do a lot of the big public works,” he said.
The Scott County project adds a third lane to a milelong stretch of Hwy. 169 in Shakopee. It will improve general traffic flow and make it easier for cars to exit on County Road 83, the Mystic Lake Casino and Canterbury Park exit.
The $1.5 million expansion is designed by a private firm, with MnDOT approving plans and signing off on it.
The nearest precedent that Solberg could recall was a left-turn-lane addition built last fall and funded by Interstate Mills grain company on Hwy. 56 near Randolph in Dakota County.
Elkins cited a project completed several years ago on Hwy. 169 at Bren Road in Minnetonka. There, UnitedHealth Group and the city helped fund an interchange that would have been at least 20 years away otherwise.
It makes sense for companies to pay for infrastructure projects that benefit them and increase the value of their property, Elkins said.
If the Scott project is unusual for Minnesota, public-private partnerships are common in other states, Johnson said.
The Shakopee tribe has been contributing funds to transportation projects for 20 years, often in partnership with Scott County and local cities, said Bill Rudnicki, tribal administrator.
They funded a $17.5 million project in 2005 to construct an interchange on Hwy. 169 in Belle Plaine, with the state later repaying them, he said.
But this is the first time the tribe has been the exclusive funder on a state highway project, he said.
The tribe has 4,200 employees and 1,000 vendors. “We started getting involved with this because I think we saw a need,” Rudnicki said. “What we’re looking at is to eliminate the weave and improve the safety of the roadway on 169.”
When cars are driving south on the highway toward Shakopee, the road goes from four to three lanes. About a mile before County Road 83, it goes down to two lanes, something that Canterbury Park CEO Randy Sampson has “grumbled about” since they built it.
Over Memorial Day, there were 30,000 concertgoers at Canterbury Park, plus 7,000 people there to watch races, Sampson said.
“This will take a lot of pressure off by having that extra lane,” he said. “I think it’s terrific that they have offered to fund this expansion.”
Open for debate
MnDOT is not paying for or designing the road but will review plans and inspect the finished product, requiring staff time. Those hours are minimal, Solberg said.
If private money pays for building or expanding a road but doesn’t pay for maintenance, that cost could one day fall on the public, who may not have supported the project in the first place, Johnson said.
Still, MnDOT is open to private entities offering to pay for road improvements, Solberg said. “As long as they meet the standards and as long as it is not detrimental to the system, we certainly are going to move forward with anything that makes sense,” he said.
Rudnicki said tribal representatives have spoken to other area businesses and received their support.
“We’ve done a lot of [projects with] different partnerships and relationships,” he said. “This is just another way we can help out.”
The decrease in transportation funding is “always a concern for us — always,” said Tom Wolf, chairman of the Scott County Board. “Road dollars are so precious, and it seems like there are less and less of them, with more and more needs.”
If Scott is happy, others may be less so, said Elkins, of Bloomington — for fear that “by making a contribution toward the project, that organizations and businesses are jumping the queue.”