MORTON?- Calls to expand Minnesota Highway 23 in southwest Minnesota got a positive reception from national legislators on Wednesday. But supporters of highway expansion said they also need to present a unified front at the state level.
Members of the Marshall Area Transportation Group held a meeting Wednesday to try and gather a broad base of support for development of the Highway 23 corridor.
"It's never happened (before), at least not on this scale," said Transportation Group chairman David Sturrock. The group tried to bring regional transportation stakeholders together a few years ago, but Sturrock said the timing wasn't right for those efforts. Since then, he said, awareness of transportation infrastructure needs in rural Minnesota has grown and has gotten a good reception from Minnesota's Congressional delegation.
Wednesday's meeting, held in conference rooms at Jackpot Junction, had a solid turnout. People in attendance included city and county officials, chamber of commerce members and businesspeople from along the corridor, as well as MnDOT representatives, several state legislators, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and Sen. Al Franken.
Highway 23 is a vital transportation corridor for both freight and people, said Cal Brink of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce. Members of the Marshall Area Transportation Group are focused on expanding Highway 23 to four lanes of traffic, among other goals. In a short presentation, Brink said the expansion is something that could be done in phases, for example in 60 to 70-mile stretches running from St. Cloud to Interstate 90 in the south.
There have been some recent steps forward for expanding Highway 23, Brink and Sturrock said. Several new passing lanes are being planned for Highway 23 between Willmar and Interstate 90, and an environmental study for expansion of the highway between New London and Richmond also received a $1.5 million Corridors of Commerce grant this year. However, finding project funding remains a constant challenge, Transportation Group members said.
Both Peterson and Franken showed pretty straightforward support for development along Highway 23.
"You have me convinced," Peterson said.
Franken said Minnesota currently has great potential for manufacturing and economic growth and transport corridors like Highway 23 will be vital to reaching that potential.
"We don't want to leave an infrastructure deficit for our kids," Franken said.
However, funding development will remain a challenge. Peterson and Franken said the loss of earmarks for federal funding has been a blow to transportation projects in Minnesota.
"We both very much want earmarks back," Peterson said. The practice was not about spending more, he said, but in having a say of where transportation dollars were spent, he said. Earmarks were what made improvements like the Highway 23 bypass in Paynesville possible.
Getting rid of earmarks ceded too much power to the executive branch of the government, Franken said.
"We in (Minnesota) know the needs better than the Department of Transportation in Washington," Franken said.
"We're going to have to come up with more revenue," for transportation projects, Peterson said. However, he said raising the gas tax may be a problematic way to do that, as Americans drive less and drive more fuel-efficient vehicles.
"I would argue we could raise it some, to shore up the fund," Peterson said.
Expansion of Highway 23 is a project that's going to need unified political support to make headway, Peterson said. Support from state legislators will be key, as well as an active community support base. Other highway corridors in Minnesota, including U.S. Highway 14, U.S. Highway 212, and Minnesota Highway 15, have all had very vocal groups calling for improvements.
"You've got to get your oar in the water and hold your own," on Highway 23 improvements, Peterson said.
Attendees at the meeting also echoed the need for teamwork to benefit the Highway 23 corridor.
"It can't just be Willmar and Marshall" driving the group's efforts, Sturrock said.
Renville County Commissioner John Stahl said mutual support between the Highway 212 coalition and the Transportation Group could be beneficial for both corridors.
Granite Falls Mayor David Smiglewski said the group needed to broaden its focus, bringing in as many businesses and communities as possible.