Mankato Free Press

By Mark Fischenich 

Dozens of elected officials and business leaders turned out in Courtland Tuesday morning to celebrate the groundbreaking for the final leg of the Highway 14 four-lane expansion project.

For the next two years, the $83.4 million in construction will mean detours and disruption as the busy highway is closed to through traffic from Nicollet to New Ulm. But U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was already looking ahead to the party in fall 2023 when the completion of the project will bring an unbroken four-lane expressway for 110 miles from just east of Rochester to Owatonna to Mankato to the eastern edge of New Ulm.

“It’s so fitting that we can end this in New Ulm where we can have a beer,” Klobuchar said. “... We’ll have one for every year it took to complete this project.”

While Minnesota Department of Transportation records are a bit vague on when the project started, it was sometime around 1960 just west of Rochester. So Klobuchar’s beer-a-year celebration would require two cases and a 12-pack of Schell’s per celebrant. On a morning when highway safety was a component of most of the speeches at MnDOT’s Courtland Truck Station, Klobuchar made clear she was joking about the number of brews to be consumed on Oct. 15, 2023 — the date when the last new four-lane segment is to open to traffic.

“No, we won’t do that. We won’t do that,” she said as she waited for the laughter to subside.

But the thirst to celebrate was unmistakable at the ceremonial start of the 14th and final segment of the Highway 14 expansion project, and speakers were in the mood to pass around the credit.

Klobuchar made reference to each of the state lawmakers on hand, Republican and Democratic alike. Fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith recalled working on Highway 14 with state Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Lake Hanska, and Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, when she was still chief of staff for Gov. Mark Dayton, then when she was lieutenant governor, and now as a senator.

“This is a good example of the power of federal, state and local partnerships,” Smith said.

“Highway 14 has always been a cause that could unite,” Torkelson added.

Gov. Tim Walz also pointed to the highway as proof that difficult challenges can be overcome through cooperation: “It is a good day.”

There was plenty of praise, too, for the persistence of the Highway 14 Partnership, a coalition of local governments and businesses that formed in 1998 to lobby for the modernization of the roadway. At that point, Highway 14 was a busy, dangerous two-lane that ran through the heart of many of the towns and small cities along its route including Janesville, Waseca and Dodge Center and required a jaunt on Interstate 35 at Owatonna. The only expressway portions completed in 1998 were 13 miles from Rochester to Kasson and 15.6 miles from North Mankato to Eagle Lake.

Over the Partnership’s first 15 years, nearly 50 additional miles of Highway 14 were upgraded to four-lane, including a continuous stretch of expressway from east of Owatonna to the west side of North Mankato and from Rochester to west of Dodge Center.

As recently as 2012, though, MnDOT’s 20-year plan had no funding set aside to finish the work. When engineering, right-of-way acquisition and other costs were added, that meant $156 million would be needed to construct the additional lanes on the 12.5-mile stretch of two-lane near Claremont and more than $139 million would be required to expand the 19-mile two-lane segment from just west of North Mankato to New Ulm. The latter segment was a notoriously dangerous section, including an area west of North Mankato that had a crash rate nearly triple the statewide average.

State dollars were critical in bringing the expansion to the area between North Mankato and Nicollet in 2015-16 and to Claremont in 2020-21.

Greg Ous, who heads MnDOT’s Mankato-based District 7, credited Walz and former state transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher, along with federal and state lawmakers, for their determination in finding funding to complete the last remaining segment.

The next 18 months might prompt more curses than cheers among the 9,000 or so daily drivers who normally rely on Highway 14 between Nicollet and New Ulm. Because the project involves a Courtland bypass, new bridges and two full interchanges, there was no realistic way to construct the expansion without shutting the highway down. For through traffic, that means a detour to Highway 68 on the opposite side of the Minnesota River.

When the work is done, however, Highway 14 drivers will find a less dangerous, faster and smoother route. The general contractor on the project is Hoffman Construction.

“What is better than a groundbreaking on a beautiful spring day?” company President Jim Hoffman asked the crowd near the end of Tuesday’s ceremony. “A ribbon-cutting on a safe highway.”

As for the prospect of a four-lane Highway 14 extending east of Rochester and west of New Ulm, lower traffic counts on the western end of the highway might make it difficult to justify four lanes. And drivers looking to travel past Rochester can connect to Highway 52 and Interstate 90, providing a four-lane route as far as Chicago, Cleveland and Boston.

That doesn’t mean that communities on the two-lane portions of the highway won’t try to keep alive the momentum for additional four-lane segments.

“Some have been more ambitious,” Walz noted. “Border to border.”

Torkelson, who represents two-lane towns like Sleepy Eye and Springfield, concluded Tuesday’s political speeches with that point: “I just want to remind people, Highway 14 doesn’t end in New Ulm.”