MnDOT outlines local and statewide vision
From the fifth floor of the St. James Hotel, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle watched as a train passed by Levee Park. He took a phone from his pocket and snapped a picture.
Through that lone window, he could see natural amenities, a bridge that needs replacing, freight and passenger rail traffic, bicycle trails and a commercial waterway.
"Sitting here tells the story of Minnesota," Zelle said to a crowd of Red Wing, Goodhue County and local business representatives gathered at the hotel. "Our history, our challenges and what is really great."
Zelle and MnDOT officials were in town Wednesday to give updates on upcoming local projects, and to discuss a 20-year statewide transportation vision facing a $50 billion funding gap.
Slated for Red Wing in the next few years are several bridge replacements — including the aging Highway 63 bridge to Wisconsin — and a major overhaul for Main Street.
The goal of the projects is to increase safety and reduce congestion downtown, where highways 63 and 58 converge, said Chad Hanson, MnDOT design project manager with the District 6 Design Office.
MnDOT decided to replace the Highway 63 bridge, which is one of 172 bridges labeled fracture critical or structurally deficient in 2008 following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, he said.
The plan is to build a replacement alongside the current bridge in order to keep the passage open to motorists during construction, as it is the only Mississippi River crossing for 30 miles in either direction.
Three design options are being considered, including a "tied arch" similar to the new Hastings bridge, Hanson said. It will remain a two-lane bridge, but could be expanded to four lanes in the future.
Additionally, a related project will either repair or replace the attached bridge over Highway 61. A proposed "button hook" design would allow traffic coming from Wisconsin to follow a curve directly onto Highway 61 without first going through downtown Red Wing.
"The button hook would resolve traffic alignment problems we've had since that bridge was built in 1960," Red Wing Planning Director Brian Peterson said.
Because the bridge over Highway 61 is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, as well near several downtown historic districts and industrial sites, design work has been a challenge, Hanson said. Construction on the bridge projects is expected to begin in 2018.
In the meantime, MnDOT will provide oversight on improvements to Main Street between the Highway 63 bridge and Old West Main Street starting in 2015. The work will include pavement and public utilities reconstruction, wider sidewalks, new medians and updated landscaping.
The changes will make Main Street safer for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing between downtown and the riverfront, Hanson said.
"Liveability doesn't just mean building large stretches of concrete so cars can go fast — it is about communities," Zelle said. "Safe approach speeds and interaction with pedestrians is very important."
The overhaul is one of more than 30 statewide main street improvement projects in MnDOT's long-term plan, which also includes maintenance for interstates and highways, he added.
Zelle's stop in Red Wing is part of an ongoing "outreach and information" campaign by MnDOT to drum up support for transportation funding. When combining road maintenance, improvement projects and investment in new transportation modes, the department expects revenue to come up short by tens of billions of dollars, Zelle said.
Two of the biggest problems: old roads and decreasing revenue.
"Minnesota's transportation system is large, aging and has many unmet needs," according to MnDOT. About 50 percent of highway pavement in the state is more than 50 years old.
MnDOT got a funding boost to maintain roadways with a gas tax increase in 2008, but Zelle said more fuel-efficient vehicles and increasing construction costs mean state buying power is decreasing.
He added that investing in transportation infrastructure is important to keeping the state's industrial and tourism economies competitive.
"We know from a lot of manufacturers this isn't just a metro issue," Zelle said. "If you have a business like Red Wing Shoes that wants to bring products to somewhere north, they have to go through the Twin Cities."
Red Wing Public Works Director Rick Moskwa asked Zelle what he thought the chances are that state lawmakers would work to increase transportation revenue.
Although he believes House leadership will be reluctant to raise taxes in 2014 because it is an election year, Zelle said legislators he talked to have seen the need for making "smart investments" for the good of the whole state.
"We have to keep evolving and making improvements," Zelle said. "It's a continuous process and we can't just let it drop."