Highway 14 — the new open road
After two years of work, traffic will start flowing on U.S. Highway 14's newest segment Nov. 9.
CLAREMONT — If you ask Barb Louks, she'll tell you there's nothing worse than hearing the screech of tires behind you.
She would know.
As a resident of Claremont who has often had to turn off U.S. Highway 14, Louks has seen plenty of crashes along the stretch of road between Owatonna and Dodge Center, a 12-mile, two-lane length of pavement that – in one direction or another – she and her husband Jeff Louks, routinely travel as part of their daily lives.
"I’ve almost been hit," Louks said. "Just the other night I was coming home, someone drove into the oncoming lane for a second."
Louks, who commutes to Rochester two or three times a week for her job with Olmsted County, said with the imminent opening of the new stretch of Highway 14, she's looking forward to having a little less fear each time she's on the highway.
On Nov. 9, the Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to open the new Highway 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center. The two-year – thus far – $144 million project has been a long time coming for people who regularly drive the segment of road.
This 12-mile stretch is the latest section between Rochester and Mankato to be converted into a controlled-access, four-lane, 65 mph highway. The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to continue upgrading Highway 14, with planning continuing on the road from Kasson to Rochester.
The new road will feature a lot of changes for everyone from daily commuters to casual travelers to the folks who live along the section of the well-traveled highway. The highway will go from two undivided lanes to four divided lanes, two in each direction. Eventually, cable guards will be placed between the directions of traffic, meaning any chance of a head-on collision will become miniscule. And the at-grade access points so common on the old route will be non-existent on the new route, which is south of the two-lane highway that has been in place for decades.
Louks has commuted to Rochester along Highway 14 since 1997, moving from Owatonna to Claremont in 2006. Her husband now travels the highway each day to Owatonna for his job at Owatonna Hospital. In all that time on the road, she's seen plenty of crashes.
"I have seen them before the medical services get there," she said. "I’ve seen them after when the paramedics are doing chest compressions on people."
Not everything about the new road and its new route are positive for Louks. The couple lives on the south side of Claremont, so the new road runs right by her house, whereas the old road's route was nearly a full mile away.
She also said while the safety features of the new road help her breathe a sigh of relief – she'll worry less when her adult children leave after a visit – no amount of safe engineering can fix the dumb things drivers do.
But the new stretch of road, she said, "I do believe it will be safer. I’m excited to try it and see what my commute will be like now."
The road moved next door to Ginny Busch
"It’s close," Ginny Busch said, pointing in the direction of the new U.S. Highway 14. The road used to be about a mile from her home; now you can see the overpass bridge from her back patio. "It cracked our ceiling" when they put the overpass supports in, she said.
Busch and her husband Brian have lived in their Claremont home since the early 1990s. The street is, was, a peaceful slice of the city. More of a country road with houses than a city street.
For most of those years, the neighborhood to the south consisted of a few rural homes, a wide expanse of woods, and a cemetery. Only the cemetery on the other side of the new highway remains.
"On windy days, we never knew it was windy," she said, adding that the trees served as a buffer. "Now the wind comes out of the south and it’s hang onto your life."
For the past two years, Busch, who once served as mayor of Claremont, has listened as construction traffic has rumbled down Dodge County Road 1 just behind her house. Between the non-stop dust – “You had to have everything closed because of the dust” – and racket due to construction, the rattle and hum from mere traffic could be a bit of a reprieve.
Busch said she certainly doesn't love having the highway practically in her backyard, but she understands the improved safety of the road is important. Commuters will drive on a safer highway, though what has been Highway 14 will remain, being turned into Steele and Dodge county roads.
She'll probably drive on the old Highway 14 going toward Owatonna, she said, and the new version when heading east to Rochester. Still, the new highway has meant a lot of change around her house, and the whole thing will take some time to get used to.
“For us, it’s so alien.” Busch said.
Looking for a bit of convenience
Nearly smack dab in the middle of the new segment of U.S. Highway 14 is the tiny Dodge County town of Claremont. The city, which has seen its population dwindle since its height of 620 in 2000 to 513 in 2020, has had trouble keeping residents since the city lost its school in 1990.
The biggest employer in town is Al-Corn Clean Fuel, a cooperative ethanol plant, but jobs are scarce thereafter. Mayor Tasha Dahl said with a four-lane highway and an off-ramp with plenty of space to build, the city is hoping to attract a gas and convenience store, and the jobs that go with it.
The city lost its gas station during the first year of Highway 14 construction, and Dahl and the city's economic development authority have reached out to Kwik Trip, Casey's and other chains to see if they can get a replacement for the gas station they lost. And while the response has been tepid at best, Dahl isn't the only one holding out hope.
"A lot of people in the country used to come to Claremont for gas or something quick from the store," Busch said. "A C-store would be a place to gather, have coffee and a donut, chit-chat, and have that morning or afternoon ritual."
The other hope for some economic development, Dahl said, is to grow the city's population through an influx of residents.
Most of the city's residents leave town to work.
"Almost every family that has individuals working outside the home, they all have someone going outside the city to work," Dahl said.
Being between Rochester and Owatonna makes Claremont something of a centrally located bedroom community. For several years now, the city has offered free residential lots to qualified individuals and families.
"In the past three months, we've had two families take on lots to build a house," she said. "We’re very much thankful that this is happening."
A much safer road is coming
John Clarey spends a lot of time driving a vehicle that comes with lights and a siren.
A paramedic and the supervisor for ground operations for Owatonna and Fairmount for Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Owatonna, Clarey has seen his fair share of crashes on the outgoing stretch of Highway 14.
What makes the road especially dangerous?
"The head-on traffic," Clarey said. "There’s no dividers. On Old 14, there’s people doing 60-65 miles an hour, you know, head-on to each other with no barrier in between."
"A road is a road, and it’s how people chose to drive on it makes it dangerous."
- Claremont Mayor Tasha Dahl
And then there are all theat-grade intersections.
"That’s where you get the T-bone accidents with the cross traffic going 60-70 miles an hour, they can be pretty catastrophic," he said.
Looking out at the new road, he said, "We love four lanes, especially four lanes when they have the cable median barriers in the middle."
While the increased speed on the new Highway 14 segment adds its own problems, the worst common crash he and other first responders expect will be vehicle rollovers.
Clarey said he looks forward to a dramatic decrease in serious crashes on Highway 14. He is glad so much traffic will be removed from the railroad tracks that cross at-grade near Owatonna. He's glad the bulk of the traffic won't have to deal with the combines and other agriculture vehicles that will remain on the old version of Highway 14.
These changes, he said, will make for safer patient transfers from Owatonna and Mankato to Rochester.
He's not the only one driving an ambulance who sees the benefits to commuters to the new Highway 14.
"A road is a road, and it’s how people chose to drive on it makes it dangerous," Dahl said.
However, she added that two undivided lanes create a more hazardous condition than what will be four lanes, divided two apiece in each direction.
Dahl, who serves on the city's fire department and is a first responder, said most crashes she sees on Highway 14 come from people trying to turn off the highway who either get rear-ended, or drivers who don't see oncoming traffic and get hit while turning. She's seen a lot of bad driving behavior, both while driving and on the side of the road tending to a crash.
One common problem is drivers using the shoulder as a right-side passing lane rather than slow down for traffic turning in front of them. That, she said, will be eliminated with the new four-lane highway.
"We see a lot of things most people don’t see," Dahl said. "I seldom turn off (Highway) 14 to (County Road) 3 if there are cars behind me. I’ll go up to (County Road) 1 where there’s a turn lane."
The road may be open, but the work is far from done
Four lanes along an entirely new 12.5-mile route, and about $100 million spent thus far.
But wait, there's more.
"Following the switch of traffic (to the new Highway 14), the contractor will continue to work as weather permits," said MnDOT project manager Tory Thompson. "(East of Dodge Country Road 5), that curve will be removed and direct connection to Dodge County 34 will be made."
That's not all. Either this fall or next spring, local road connections for the old version of Highway 14, which will become a county road in Steele and Dodge counties, will need to be made once the Minnesota Department of Transportation temporarily takes the traffic off those sections of the road. Asphalt shoulders will need to be completed.
A bridge over the railroad tracks for old Highway 14 needs to come out, Thompson said. Temporary pavement will be removed, topsoil and grass seed brought in. Traffic on the new highway will be reduced to one lane in each direction temporarily.
On the Steele County end, County Road 180, which runs adjacent to 54th Avenue in Owatonna, needs a smooth connection.
Next spring, once materials are available, the cable median barriers will be installed.
Thompson said there are a few local projects that will occur once the new road is finished. For example, between the interchange at Dodge County Road 3 and the overpass bridge at County Road 1 on the north side of the highway is a gravel road that connects to the main part of Claremont. The city has sought funding to pave that road.
On the south side of Highway 14 between the two county roads is a frontage road that is gravel. Thompson said MnDOT considered but eventually declined to pave the frontage road.
"I've heard Dodge County put in for a grant for Claremont Township to pave the roadway between (County Road) 1 and (County Road) 3," she said.
In the meantime, Thompson is eager to see the new highway segment open.
"I live in Owatonna," she said. "I’ve driven this route from 2008 to 2016 daily."
Looking back to some of the more notorious crashes on the old stretch of Highway 14, she said she's glad she'll have a safer drive between Dodge Center and Owatonna.
"This will put traffic in a much safer condition," Thompson said. "We're not always going to be looking in our rearview mirror for traffic coming up behind us."