U.S. 52 inches toward freeway status
The Highway 52 Freeway Partnership is creeping ever closer toward accomplishing its goal of creating a controlled-access highway for motorists traveling between the Med City and the Twin Cities.
Established in 1999, the alliance between Olmsted, Goodhue and Dakota counties recently crossed the halfway point of its $816 million vision. Last week's Minnesota Department of Transportation announcement of funding for the deadly U.S. 52 and Goodhue County Road 9 intersection means that $424 million has been spent or committed for safety improvements since 2002.
The bulk of that funding — $236.6 million — was designated for the ROC 52 Project in Rochester, which included nine interchanges, 27 bridges and widening an 11-mile stretch from four to six lanes. The four-plus year project was Minnesota's first design-build highway and won the Project of the Year Award for Transportation Projects over $100 million from the American Public Works Association in 2006.
MnDOT's Kristin Kamueller said that every project along the U.S. 52 corridor to date has been funded by special programs, such as Safety and Mobility grants.Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, believes the unified voice coming from the Highway 52 Partnership has been critical to being selected for so many of the highly competitive grants.
"I think it's really important to have all your representatives on the same page," Schmit said. "That makes it easy to work with a state agency to craft a solution. I think it's a great example of a partnership of state and local government."
Creating a list of priorities that everyone agreed on was important, according to Olmsted County Public Works Director Mike Sheehan — especially if that meant advocating for a project outside of your county on the group's annual lobbying trips to Washington, D.C.
"If you had everyone going in for every little project, I'm not sure we'd get anything accomplished," Sheehan said. "When we started this, we were hopeful that we could make a difference. I think it shows what everyone working together, pulling together, what you can accomplish."
Safety in Numbers
The main goal of the coalition has been to enhance safety by eliminating access points by funneling traffic to interchanges. Another priority has also been to remove stoplights in order to reduce the dangers of crashes from inattentive drivers; the final two lights along the corridor — located in Cannon Falls — are expected to be removed in the fall of 2014.
However, it remains a work in progress.
There were 49 fatalities and 1,515 crashes with injuries recorded on U.S. 52 from 2003-12. The latest occurred in May just south of Cannon Falls, which prompted action by MnDOT to secure funding for an interchange at County Road 9. Though the design remains in a preliminary phase, that project is expected to eliminate a number of at-grade access points.
When the safety push began in earnest in 2000, MnDOT records show that 256 at-grade access existed along the corridor. The current number is unavailable, according to MnDOT's Kammueller, but it's likely been cut roughly in half; the Elk Run interchange closed 18 and the County Road 24 interchange in Cannon Falls will eliminate 13 more.
"As traffic on 52 gets to be higher and higher, it's going to get more and more dangerous," said Goodhue County Public Works Director Greg Isakson.
With the recent approval of Mayo Clinic's Destination Medical Center, which plans $6 billion in economic development, Rochester is projected to add 35,000 jobs over the next 20 years. The corresponding population growth will mean even more people using U.S. 52 over the next few decades.
Sheehan expressed confidence that the $816 million vision will be fully completed in a decade, but Kammueller is less certain. Isakson says patience is key, though he did note the recent successes in the Cannon Falls area has created renewed optimism within the partnership.
"It's amazing how fast these two came up — and they both really came out of no where," Isakson said. "A lot of that has to do with the Highway 52 Partnership. The folks out in Washington say they really appreciate when they have different entities saying the exact same thing … but it's really hard to predict when the next (funding program) will come along."