Donor's bucks help a suburban highway jump the queue

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2014 - 6:38 AM

The project aims to ease traffic to Mystic Lake, Canterbury Park.

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.

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