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Our View: Slight delay for a better outcome is worth the risk

Our View editorial graphic
Our View

Back in the '70s and '80s, Fram oil filters ran a series of commercials that always included the same punch line, usually delivered by a grizzled mechanic: “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” The message, of course, was that if you went cheap on your oil filter now, you'd later pay a lot more for a new engine.

The commercial wouldn't have worked with “You can pay me now, AND pay me later.” No one likes the idea of fixing the same problem twice -- but that's the decision facing the Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments regarding a dangerous stretch of U.S. Highway 14 between Rochester and Byron.

An estimated 30,000 drivers use this artery each day, and many of them behave as if it's an interstate highway. It isn't. Between Byron and Rochester are three at-grade crossings that, in a typical year, produce about a dozen accidents, many of them severe, and some of them fatal.

This problem didn't develop overnight. City and county leaders, as well as area legislators, have been talking about it for years and advocating for state funding to address it.

The actual plan and design of a permanent solution is far from finalized, but it would likely include a so-called “J-turn” intersection at Olmsted County Road 3 just east of Byron; an interchange with an overpass and entry/exit ramps at County Road 44 (60th Avenue Northwest); and a “flyway” bridge at the intersection of Seventh Street NW, which would carry cars above U.S. 14 without any access to or from it. Also included in the plan is a cable barrier in the median between Byron and Rochester to prevent vehicles from hitting oncoming traffic.

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The total estimated cost of the project is $41 million, with the hope being that the state will cover half.

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Traffic maneuvers through the intersection of Hwy. 14 and Olmsted County Road 104 west of Rochester on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. (Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com)

Eighteen months ago, that state funding seemed far out of reach. The U.S. 14 project did not appear on the Minnesota Department of Transportation's 10-year plan, and at a meeting of the Olmsted County Board, DOT Region 6 engineer Mark Schoenfelder told the commissioners “We simply do not have the funding in our annual program to do these large, large improvements.”

Instead, MnDOT proposed some temporary measures to mitigate the number and severity of accidents along the U.S. 14 corridor. The plan included a J-turn intersection at County Road 44, which would allow drivers on Highway 14 to make left turns onto 44 but would prevent drivers on 44 from crossing or turning left onto 14.

Suffice to say that this plan received a lukewarm reception, at best. Mayor Kim Norton and commissioners Jim Bier and Mark Thein were openly skeptical, fearing that such changes had the potential to create new confusion for drivers and new challenges for drivers of large commercial vehicles.

Additionally, there was also worry that a temporary fix would take this problem off of the Legislature's radar, thus delaying indefinitely any permanent solution.

Still, planning for the temporary fixes moved forward, with bids to be sought this May and construction beginning later this year – but then things got interesting. The Legislature, which is working with a budget surplus of $9 billion, is considering $21.8 million for the U.S. 14 project.

At a recent meeting, Bier argued in favor of nixing the temporary fixes and going all-in on the permanent plan. “I think there's a pretty good chance that that money will be forthcoming,” he said.

It's a tough call.

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While the estimated cost of the temporary fixes has soared in the past year, its current $2 million price tag would be covered by state and federal transportation funds. That's great but, regardless of who is paying, we're not thrilled at the idea of spending taxpayer dollars for fixes that are likely to be be ripped out within a year or two. And we definitely share Bier's concern that moving forward with a temporary fix will reduce the sense of urgency for this project in St. Paul.

Then again, if the temporary measures reduce expected accidents by just half, that could mean 10 fewer crashes over an 18-month period while the permanent plans are finalized.

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Traffic maneuvers through the intersection of Hwy. 14 and Olmsted County Road 104 west of Rochester on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. (Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com)

So, put in simplest terms, the age-old question is this: What's the value of a single life? Are city and county leaders willing to accept the higher likelihood of a fatal crash in the next year or two by waiting for a permanent fix to U.S. 14?

Believe it or not, the government actually puts a monetary figure on human life, because such calculations play a role in the cost-benefit analyses that inform decision-making at the highest levels. FEMA, for example, estimated the value of one life at $7.5 million.

By that measure, the correct decision for U.S. 14 would be to implement the temporary fixes ASAP – but we'd argue that there is some middle ground.

Barring a special session (yes, we recognize the possible absurdity of that statement), the Legislature will approve or reject the permanent project's funding within two months. Holding the temporary fixes in limbo for that time might mean higher costs and some construction delays, but we see that as an acceptable risk.

Furthermore, while we understand the cost-benefit and the logistical convenience of bundling all of the U.S. 14 fixes into one massive project, we could tolerate a piecemeal approach. The changes at County Road 3, as well as the cable median barriers from Byron to U.S. 52, are permanent fixes that could move forward immediately regardless of what the Legislature ultimately decides. If breaking the project into smaller pieces costs more, so be it.

Meanwhile, we'd like MnDOT and local leaders to consider some additional warning signs at all three of the at-grade crossings. Perhaps the speed limit on U.S. 14 should be temporarily reduced between Byron and Rochester.

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For now, however, our best advice is for drivers on U.S. 14 to do what they should always do: Stay off your phone, allow a generous following distance, drive defensively and never assume that the driver approaching an intersection has seen you.

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