Planned U.S. Highway 14 safety improvements between Rochester and Byron could be made ahead of schedule, but some local officials are questioning whether they should start at all.
“Take all the money you are spending there and put in an overpass at 104,” Olmsted County Commissioner Jim Bier told Minnesota Department of Transportation officials during a Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments review of the plan.
Bier has been an advocate for an overpass at County Road 44, formerly known as County Road 104.
“Olmsted County has identified it as a No. 1 priority,” Bier said, noting that commissioners have agreed to fund the estimated $40 million project, if the state promises to pay back half the cost over five years.
MnDOT project manager Tom Austin said the funds aren’t available to commit, but improving safety at the intersection, as well as crossings at County Road 3 and Seventh Street Northwest, is a priority.
As a result, the state is suggesting $1.4 million in modifications to reduce the potential for crashes.
A set of J-turns is planned at County Road 3, which would require drivers who want to cross a portion or all of the four-lane highway take make right turn to travel with the traffic flow and then make a left turn down the road to head in the desired direction or make another right turn, effectively crossing the intersection.
While the Seventh Street crossing would be closed, Austin said a modified version of the J-turn intersection is planned for County Road 44. It would close the median and only allow a right turn for traffic coming from the county road north of the intersection. Eastbound traffic could be given access to a J-turn, which will provide a way to get to County Road 44.
“It does make it possible for us to make sure people are going to get home safe at night, while we wait for that funding for an interchange,” Austin said, adding that the work planned for August 2022 could start earlier next summer.
VIDEO: TRAFFIC SIMULATIONS WITH PROPOSED CHANGES
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who sits on the regional transportation council and once lived near the County Road 44 intersection, said she opposes the temporary fix and would prefer the effort for a new overpass to be accelerated.
“This in my mind is not an appropriate response,” she said of the proposed temporary modification.
Gene Peters, a council citizen representative, agreed, citing experiences with trying to get farm equipment across the four-lane highway.
“This plan scares me to be thinking about bringing farm equipment across it,” he said of the J-turns that require multiple maneuvers. “It doesn’t improve the safety from my standpoint.”
Austin said studies at similar intersections show crashes are reduced by limiting the potential conflicts with other vehicles and reducing speeds at intersections.
“We’re reducing the chances of a crash, and when a crash does occur, we want to manage the circumstances of that crash,” he said, adding that the altered crossing reduces the potential for T-bone collisions.
County Commissioner Mark Thein said he worries about losing focus on the long-term need.
“I’m just worried that if we put these temporary fixes in, that takes the heat off and this just gets pushed farther and farther down the road,” he said.
Austin said he doesn’t expect that to happen.
“I think everyone on the call and in the room agrees that 44 is a priority,” he said.
Bier said the county is using $6 million in state funds to plan an overpass at County Road 44, as well as purchasing required property, so work on the larger project could start next year with funding commitments.
What happened: Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments members reviewed Minnesota Department of Transportation plans for safety improvements along U.S. Highway 14, between Rochester and Byron.
Why does this matter: Olmsted County officials have made an overpass at the County Road 44 crossing a priority, and members have opposed the planned temporary measures at the site.
What's next: The council will vote next month on a planned resolution to encourage the state to put the proposed overpass on it’s 10-year project list and ask lawmakers to fund half of the estimated $40 million cost.
Austin said the lack of committed funds means the project can’t be put into the state’s work plan, but a portion of $200 million in recently approved special transportation funding could be earmarked in the future.
Bier said such responses start a frustrating loop.
“You can’t put it in the 10-year program because you don’t have the funding,” he said. “We go up to the senators and the representatives … and they say ‘we can’t ask for special funding or bonding because it’s not in the 10-year program. That sounds like a chicken and an egg thing.”
Bier said he’s been working for five years to get the proposed overpass into the state’s 10-year plan.
The Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments asked county staff to prepare a resolution for its next meeting calling for the state to add the project to its plan. Members also want lawmakers to consider special funding or state borrowing for at least half of the project.
“If you had it in the 10-year program, I feel pretty confident we could get some (state) bonding dollars for that,” Bier told MnDOT officials Wednesday.