A coalition of roughly a dozen cities and a half-dozen counties stretching for 70 miles is being assembled to push for a stoplight-free commute from Scott County across the Minnesota River on Hwy. 169 into the job-rich 494 corridor.

The lights turn 169 into a parking lot at times in mornings and late afternoons. And even occasional visitors from the countryside are finding a trip into town more and more aggravating, said Kathy Brynaert, a DFL representative from Mankato.

"I've lived in Mankato for 30 years," she said, "and we used to say it was clear sailing at some times of the day. But you can't guarantee that anymore. It's a quality of life issue, but also an economic development issue for businesses -- how much time it's taking them."

The communities to the south would be adding their weight to discussions that have already taken place in Hennepin County.

Those discussions have been about accelerating the 494/169 project now that an increased gas tax will fatten the kitty for roads. A cost of $120 million to $150 million has been mentioned for a complete 494/169 makeover, though there has also been talk of cheaper, partial measures costing between $50 and $100 million.

The inspiration for a city-county coalition comes in part from Carver County's success in getting help from west-central Minnesota in the push for a new freeway-formatted Hwy. 212 from Eden Prairie into the countryside after decades of inaction.

Another model is what Brynaert calls the "slow success" of communities in southern Minnesota that banded together to push for the four-laning of Hwy. 14, the main east-west artery from Rochester to Mankato and points west.

But the 169 coalition will also consist of folks with conflicting priorities.

Just a day before the group was to meet in Mankato last week to plot strategy, the Mankato Free Press reported that public officials there are worried that the state is shifting emphasis away from their own local issues with Hwys. 169 and 14, and moving to quell a rising metro-area impatience with the long tiebacks at 169 and 494.

"Outstate, to put it bluntly, is getting screwed," the newspaper quoted Gary Zellmer, the mayor of North Mankato, as warning his City Council on Monday night.

But legislators at the suburban end of the road are far from convinced that the state is about to fix the problems on their end.

The state's Department of Transportation "seems to be leaning toward getting a number of smaller projects accomplished," said Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan. "Ten million here, 10 million there -- smaller upgrades vs. bigger ones."

"We need to keep public and political pressure on MnDOT," said Rep. Michael Beard, a Republican from Shakopee. And there has been progress, he added: "At least it's on the current five-year plan. A couple of years ago it was on the '20-year plan,' which means it didn't have a snowball's chance."

With eight state legislators up and down 169 appering at one early organizing session, and others expressing interest, there's hope at the state level, Robling said. But she and Beard expressed concern about federal support. One question is whether to pay for professional lobbying in Washington, Robling said.

An even more basic issue, she said, is how much of 169 gets included in the group.

"Should we extend it as far as 394? Then you'd be pretty much going the whole length. The problem with that, though, is that we don't want this to go on forever. A coalition needs to have some accomplishments and get them done and move on."

The issues vary between urban and rural areas, Brynaert said. Outstate, the concern is more apt to have to do with things like the safety of two-lane thoroughfares, or the beating roads are taking from trucks serving the ethanol boom. Closer to town, it's all about congestion.

"But I come from a background of coalition-building at the local level, and I think we have to work together. I don't think it benefits anyone to create a metro-outstate divide."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023