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MnDOT unveils road plans at Bemidji meeting

State Department of Transportation officials explain the process MnDOT used to development its draft 20-year transportation plan at an open house for stakeholders Thursday at the Bemidji MnDOT headquarters. Officials included Abby Mckenzie, director of the agency's Office of Investment Management, and Deputy Commissioner Khani Sahebjam. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

State officials project Minnesota's transportation needs for the next 20 years at $65 billion -- but they expect to see only $15 billion in revenue.

"We have challenges that we need to face together and we'll be talking to you more about those," Abby Mckenzie, director of the state Transportation Department's Office of Investment Management, said Thursday in Bemidji.

MnDOT is seeking input on its proposed 20-year statewide transportation plan, charting out projects to 2028, and setting a policy to determine how projects are ranked within available resources.

Most of the questions from the 40 or so people who attended focused on the federal economic stimulus package rather than the statewide plan.

An open house was held Thursday morning at MnDOT's Bemidji district headquarters for northwest Minnesota, billed as a stakeholder outreach meeting, the sixth of seven such meeting slated in rural Minnesota.

The new plan updates MnDOT's last plan, done in 2004, Mckenzie said.

In the 2004 plan, preservation was the top priority, she said. "At that time, we projected that we could fully develop our preservation needs and still have significant funding available for safety, mobility and community priorities."

Since then, preservation needs have increased and revenues for transportation have decreased, she said. "Now ... it will take more than all the projected available funds to meet our preservation needs."

While preservation remains a high priority, it is not an exclusive priority, Mckenzie said. "We are trying to develop a more balanced plan that carves out money for safety, for mobility and community priorities while still making an investment in our preservation needs."

The plan has become more multimodal, she said. The plan will emphasize the movement of people and freight between regional trade centers within Minnesota by providing efficient, multimodal transportation connections.

Irene Weis of Park Rapids questioned whether multimodal included provisions for bike and pedestrian walkways, and Mckenzie said the plan calls for partnerships with local units of government, including with alternative routes such as bikeways.

"When you try to get across five lanes of traffic that is supposed to be going 30 mph ... getting across there safety without cars stopping and getting rear-ended" is tough, Weis said.

"The biker/walker have a right to be on that road," she said. "As you are concerned, so are we concerned about the safety of everybody."

Thursday's meeting focuses on northwest Minnesota District 2's needs, with total investment need projected at $2.5 billion. The total proposed programmed construction is $930 million from this year to 2028, with $835 million in infrastructure preservation.

"It is unlikely that future transportation funding will ever be increased to meet the degree of unmet need," the draft District 2 Highway Investment Plan states. To generate an additional $2.5 billion in revenue over 10 years would require the equivalent of raising the state's gasoline tax 12.5 cents per gallon, it said.;

"Our district has a large increase in population in the southeast part of the district, in the Walker and Park Rapids area, so we put a lot of energy in that area," said Graig Gilbertson, MnDOT principal engineer in Bemidji. "We have the most lane miles of any district, yet we're seventh in federal funding."

Five percent of the district's state highways are in the lowest category, that of restricted roads with narrow shoulders or steep inslopes that don't meet state standards, he said.

The district's top priority is safety, followed by bridges and by road preservation, Gilbertson said. And, he added. MnDOT has received long lists of potential projects that need to be prioritized.

The list so far includes up to $35 million in regional and community projects, from frontage roads and channelization of U.S. Highway 71 in Park Rapids to major work on state Highway 11 between Roseau and Warroad to highway bypasses at Park Rapids, Crookston and Thief River Falls.

Bridge projects include the Robbin/Drayton Bridge on Highway 11 in 2009, the bridge over the Red River at Oslo on Highway 1 in 2013, the Sorlie Bridge over the Red River at Grand Forks on U.S. Highway 2B in 2018, the bridge over the Rainy River at Baudette on Highway 72 in 2019 and the Kennedy Bridge over the Red River at Grand Forks on U.S. Highway 2 in 2019.

Safety issues include turn lanes and such, Gilbertson said. Those include adding some more lanes to Highway 71 south of Bemidji in 2010, intersection improvement at Highways 2 and 89 west of Bemidji, flattening a hill on Highway 200 west of Laporte in 2013, a Thief River Falls roundabout and intersection improvements on Highway 32.

Stimulus funding

The transportation plans do not include projects that may be included in the federal economic stimulus package, which MnDOT officials are now studying for what it may include for Minnesota.

MnDOT's share is expected at $345 million, Mckenzie said, with $15 million for local enhancement projects where there are already $48 million in requests. Total stimulus funding for infrastructure will be more than $520 million.

Projects must be "shovel ready and at least half the money encumbered within 120 days, she said.

"We have a good reputation in Minnesota of delivering things fast and getting things done," said Transportation Deputy Commissioner Khani Sahebjam. "Nothing's going to get delayed -- we're not sending any money back to Washington. This money we'll get will help stimulate our economy."

The stimulus money will be delivered to projects across the state, and not weighted to the metro area, he added.

Asked where the distressed areas are in the state that need the most stimulus jobs, Sahebjam said that he thinks it's everywhere. "The metro folks think that everybody lives there, so you should spend most of it there, but that's not the way we operate in the department.

"Every district is getting a piece of the pie, and we're getting good projects out on concrete, asphalt, bridges, grading, freight rail," he added. :There's lots of opportunities to be had."

No decisions have been made yet, but a District 2 potential list of projects totals $22.2 million and would create 525 jobs. It includes a signal replacement at Ridgeway Avenue and Highway 197 in Bemidji and a $2.8 million project to remove bridges over the abandoned railway and lowering the grade of both lanes of U.S. Highway 2 east of Wilton.

The statewide list of first tier projects totals $519.4 million and would create 12,836 jobs if all were funded.

"The governor of each state has to certify that you don't delay any of your regular stuff you were going to do inured to get this done, because that's going to lose its effect," Sahebjam said. "You have to keep your regular program whole, and this is on top of that to create stimulus."

With an 120-day window to begin, Mckenzie said factors used to select projects include that they are project-ready. "Fifty percent of the funds must be spent in 120 days ... that's a big hurry."

Also, with typical right-of-way acquisitions taking at least 18 months, those acquisitions need to be done, she said. Projects should also have statewide impact to create jobs throughout the state.

"They also need to be consistent with our long-range plans," she said. "There also has to be a balance in work timing. This is a 50 percent increase in our construction program, which is already a pretty big construction program. We want to make sure we utilize the entire construction industry when we put this work out."

The notice of the first project to be funded under the stimulus funding is today, Mckenzie said, with bid letting in mid-March.