Counterpoint: I-94 expansion should not be breezily dismissed

  • Article by: DAVID FITZSIMMONS
  • Updated: October 30, 2013 - 6:02 PM

Don’t shortchange the drivers and businesses backed up between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.

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An Oct. 13 Associated Press article (“Experts say more I-94 lanes from Twin Cities to St. Cloud not best fix for congestion headache”) made the argument that lane expansion on Interstate 94 is not an economical solution to the traffic woes that plague our region. Citing officials of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and members of the Metropolitan Council, the article painted a false picture of I-94 expansion as a project devoid of benefits. Instead of exploring the benefits of expanding I-94 for the central Minnesota area, the article relied on St. Paul bureaucrats with transit-only views, failing to explain the real losses involved in not expanding the interstate from four to six lanes on the northwest side of the Twin Cities.

I work for the people of Minnesota, and many of them are harmed by the lack of investment in highway infrastructure in the northwest metro area. I am constantly reminded of the negative impact of the congestion nightmares on Minnesota’s businesses. These businesses are seeing their efforts to expand our state’s economy and make it more competitive stymied by an insufficient and overly encumbered infrastructure.

From the Fish Lake interchange in Maple Grove to Hwy. 241 in St. Michael, both the crash rate and crash severity are double the state average. From Hwy. 241 in St. Michael to Hwy. 23 in St. Cloud, I-94 is the most congested span of interstate in Greater Minnesota. While representing only 1.6 percent of MnDOT’s Interregional Corridor System, the span from Rogers to St. Cloud makes up 40 percent of the system’s congestion.

There are real economic losses involved. GNP Co., producer of Gold’n Plump chicken, provides approximately 900 jobs in central Minnesota. The firm processes about 1 million pounds of chicken every day that must be delivered to customers in a timely manner. GNP estimates that delays on I-94 cost it around $225,000 a year.

Spee-Dee Delivery also operates along the I-94 corridor. Every day its trucks face the traffic congestion caused by the lack of lane capacity on I-94. The $200,000 a year Spee-Dee loses because of delays on I-94 means fewer jobs and less investment in our region.

King Solutions operates hundreds of trucks out of its facility in Dayton every week. The firm has been forced to schedule deliveries at odd hours just to avoid traffic. Forcing businesses to adjust their schedules due to traffic does not reflect well on the region and is not a solution for long-term growth.

The Met Council’s Bonnie Kollodge talks about “lower-cost projects” with higher benefits. I’d like to hear the council’s explanation for how a Southwest light-rail project meets this standard. The I-94 expansion project from Hwys. 101 to 241 has an estimated cost of $35 million, whereas estimates for the Southwest Corridor project range as high as $1.55 billion.

The I-94 project costs little more than 2 percent of Southwest light rail and will transport significantly more commuters per day. It is also a key route for goods. Unless light rail has the capacity to transport hundreds of millions of dollars of goods per week, I don’t see how it could be of lower cost and higher benefit.

These are just a few examples of businesses underserved by the I-94 corridor. Hundreds are affected every day by delayed shipments, delayed employees and delayed customers. Improved lane capacity means both better traffic flow and more commerce along the I-94 corridor.

It is not right for the Met Council to block the full future development potential of central Minnesota from St. Michael to Moorhead by holding up expansion of less than three miles of highway under its jurisdiction from Rogers to St. Michael.

The state’s economy is not just about the seven-county metro area. The time for MnDOT to start expanding I-94 was 10 years ago. Now it’s time they start catching up.

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