Safety vs. Money at MnDOT

Part 2: Hwy. 14, Highway of horrors

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY and PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 4:11 PM

In south-central Minnesota, many people have been hurt or killed on Hwy. 14, which has several two-lane stretches that are among the most dangerous in the state.

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Every time Al Forsberg drives U.S. Hwy. 14 , he sees death traps where others see the open road.

 The highway, a mix of old two-lane and reconstructed four-lane sections, has blind intersections, heavy truck traffic, narrow shoulders and unexpected curves. It may be the deadliest highway in the state.

Since the mid-1980s, more than 145 people have been killed on the highway, which winds through 265 miles of farmland from Winona to the South Dakota border. On average, someone dies on the road every two months. And 75 percent of the deaths between 2000 and 2005 occurred on the two-lane stretches, state rec­ords show.

“Being an engineer, I tend to always see the smallest characteristics on a road that will cause death or injuries,” said Forsberg, the longtime head of public works for Blue Earth County.

“But I’m also a citizen, and I know how badly this highway needs to be fixed for everyone’s sake.”

He and other officials have spent years demanding that the Minnesota Department of Transportation overhaul the harrowing parts of the highway. MnDOT’s response, they say, has been agonizingly slow.

Over the past 40 years, just two of five major sections have been modernized. Widen­ing one two-lane stretch of the highway where crashes are prevalent might not begin until 2023 or later. Similar delays — and the same frustration — are apparent across the state.From St. Cloud to Nisswa to Lake Mille Lacs to Remer, local officials are complaining about highway safety improvements repeatedly being put on hold because of lack of money.

In north-central Minnesota, for example, MnDOT has delayed several major projects that would improve road safety in a region that has seen fatality rates increase with the population, said former Crow Wing County Highway Engineer Duane Blanck.Right now, there is a $3.5 billion gap in funding through 2030 for preventive and corrective safety projects on Minnesota highways, according to MnDOT.

“There’s just not enough money in the pie to go around,’’ said Blanck, who worked on Crow Wing County’s roads for 32 years and is a past president of the National Association of County Engineers. “There’s just a tremendous backlog of state transportation needs.”Motorists who travel Hwy. 14 are more blunt.

“The carnage that we see along Highway 14 is a sad reflection of the unwillingness of our leaders to make needed improvements in our transportation infrastructure,” said Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, president of the U.S. Highway 14 Partnership.

The nonpartisan group includes 21 municipalities and 55 private-sector affiliates along the corridor, which 45,000 people use every day.

Cuts were on the table

This fall, the group swung into action after MnDOT told legislators that it was considering $8.4 million in cuts to projects scheduled for the south-central district that includes a large portion of Hwy. 14.

The proposed budget cut threatened to stall preliminary work next summer on a $150 million expansion of Hwy. 14 from two to four lanes between Owatonna and Waseca.

“The four-lane upgrade of Highway 14 from Rochester to New Ulm has been in process for four decades,” Kuntz wrote to Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, MnDOT’s commissioner. “The citizens of southern Minnesota should not have to wait any longer for a safe and reliable route.”Bob McFarlin, Molnau’s assistant, said MnDOT is no longer considering budget cuts that would interfere with that work on Hwy. 14.

 Work on the four-lane expansion from Owatonna to Waseca is expected to begin by midsummer and be finished by 2012 at the latest, McFarlin said.

Molnau declined to be interviewed, but said in a written statement, “This administration inherited the problems on Highway 14 — but we’re the ones fixing them. ... This administration has supported Highway 14 improvements and will continue as funds allow.’’

Kuntz and other southern Minnesotans say that MnDOT is putting fiscal restraint ahead of road improvements that would save lives.

  • about this series

  • Repairs to the state's worst bridge and roads are being put off year after year, sometimes for more than a decade, as the transportation agency contends with massive budget shortfalls and aging infrastructure. The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in August brought the problems starkly into view.

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