Coalition presses for highway improvements

Click here to read about the challenges Highway 10 poses for one Elk River business.

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Local leaders are turning up the heat to improve key corridors like Highway 10 and Highway 169 in Elk River and beyond.

One of the people in the thick of it is Sherburne County Commissioner Bruce Anderson of Elk River.

Rush-hour traffic headed west on Highway 10 near Main Street in Elk River last week.

Afternoon rush-hour traffic headed west on Highway 10 near Main Street in Elk River last week.

 

Anderson, the former Sherburne County sheriff, said traffic congestion has been an issue in Elk River for a long time and he heard a lot of concerns about it while campaigning last year.

“It has been a huge issue,” he said. “As we all know, if you try to get into Elk River when people are coming home from work or even getting through in the early morning hours, it really gets bottled up. We definitely need to do something.”

It’s a larger issue than Elk River, however, he said. There is interest across the region in seeing highway improvements.

Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson

Anderson said a number of entities have passed resolutions in support of improvements to key regional highways including Anoka and Sherburne counties, area cities such as Elk River, Anoka, Ramsey and  Zimmerman and the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce. Law enforcement officials are also supportive.

The issue is on the radar of local, state and federal officials as well.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, met with area officials last month in Ramsey to discuss transportation issues, specifically Highway 10 and I-94. Among those attending the meeting from Elk River were City Administrator Cal Portner and City Engineer Justin Femrite.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, visited the State Capitol in March to advocate for two north metro transportation projects. At a press conference, Bachmann pushed for funding lane additions on Interstate 94 and dollars for improvements on heavily traveled Highway 10. She was flanked by Republican legislators and local leaders, including Anderson, state Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, and Brian Olson, operations manager with Cretex in Elk River.

Anderson said Gov. Mark Dayton is aware of the issue as well.

Zerwas, meanwhile, said Anderson had approached him about how they are getting the counties and other stakeholders together, rallying around the transportation issue.

Nick Zerwas

Nick Zerwas

Zerwas said he has met with Bachmann and her staff and they have indicated that “transportation in our area is her No. 1 priority.” He said the congresswoman has indicated she will apply the same focus to improving Highway 10 as she did in seeking funding for a new bridge at Stillwater.

Zerwas, who was on the Elk River City Council before being elected to the Legislature last year, said Elk River is ahead of the game because it has worked for several years with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to develop a transportation plan for Highway 10 in Elk River.

“That’s one of the messages I’m trying to deliver both here in St. Paul and to the folks out in (Washington) D.C.,” he said.

“We have a plan. It’s ready to go…We’re just looking for the funding,” he said.

The plan calls for about $250 million in improvements to Highway 10 through Elk River. As envisioned, Highway 10 would evolve into a freeway as it comes through downtown. That would require shifting the railroad tracks to the north to make way for a highway with interchanges and a frontage road system.

Zerwas said the state, county and city would all have a role in such a project, but it needs to be led by Congress.

“The ability to fund a capital project that huge at a state level just isn’t feasible,” he said. “There might be an ability to bite off a chunk here and there, but for a lot of it it’s really going to be looking at partnering with a federal project and making sure that we’re ready when we’re required to put in that state and local match.”

He sees it being funded in steps, with the first step to relocate the railroad tracks in downtown Elk River.
“I don’t think anyone believes it’s realistic to have a quarter of a billion dollars show up,” Zerwas said.

The city of Elk River also has worked with MnDOT to craft a long-range plan for Highway 169 through Elk River.

The Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce has expressed interest in improving both highways, forming a Corridor of Commerce Highway Taskforce to advocate for improvements to Highway 10 and Highway 169. The group was formed in December and has met several times so far. Members attended Bachmann’s press conference as well. Anderson, Zerwas, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, Brian Olson from Cretex and others are on the task force.

The chamber’s Board of Directors also recently approved a resolution supporting prioritization of improvements to Highways 10 and 169. The resolution states that the highways are the “Corridors of Commerce” for Sherburne County and for the region. They serve businesses, commuters and tourists who seek access to the Twin Cities and are a gateway to northern Minnesota.

Debbi Rydberg

Debbi Rydberg

Cal Portner

Cal Portner

Debbi Rydberg, the chamber’s executive director, said MnDOT has not made funding of this regional corridor a priority. The board’s action, along with resolutions from area counties and cities, is an effort to bring the need for this project into better focus, she said.

Elk River City Administrator Portner said a number of things have come together to call attention to transportation issues.

One was the election of Anderson to the Sherburne County Board in November, Portner said. Transportation is one of Anderson’s priorities and “he’s been out and about very actively pushing it,” Portner said.

In addition, one of Bachmann’s priorities is to advance transportation in Minnesota overall and the I-94 and Highway 10 corridors in particular, Portner said. Because she is looking to get federal funding identified, that has helped the cause, he said.

Recent traffic fatalities in Ramsey have also galvanized people to press for highway improvements, he said.

Portner, who used to work for U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, said a project like the Highway 10 improvements in Elk River would typically be a “tremendous partnership,” starting with a large allocation of federal funding.

“Then we’ll get it on MnDOT’s plan because there’s federal earmark money (and) then we’ll get some state money involved in it,” Portner said. “Then, most likely, there’s going to be county and maybe even city money in there somehow if we really want to get it done. But you need that one big chunk to get things going.”

Best-case scenario, if everything fell into place, Portner said it would probably take 10 years to even get started on a project.

But what he finds encouraging is that people are looking at the entire corridor — from Coon Rapids to past St. Cloud — and taking a regional approach to solving the problem.

Rydberg agreed Highway 10 is not just an Elk River issue.

“It goes way beyond Elk River. From Anoka to St. Cloud needs help. You can’t just fix one piece of a road,” she said.

Matt Look

Matt Look

In Anoka County, Commissioner Matt Look of Ramsey would like to see a $300 million project to turn Highway 10 into a freeway in Anoka and Ramsey, plus additional funding for Highway 10 in Elk River.

“The reality is you just can’t keep expecting this highway to perform when it (traffic volumes) are exceeding what it was designed for,” he said.

Congestion on Highway 10 pushes traffic onto county and city roads, Look said. Anoka County did a traffic study and if Highway 10 were not upgraded, in some cases Anoka  County would need six-lane county roads to handle the traffic.

“The dysfunction that’s occurring on Highway 10 doesn’t stay on Highway 10,” he said.

Highway 10 is a federal highway, Look said, and funding for an improvement project would consist of 80 percent federal funding and 20 percent state/county/city.

Bachmann, Franken and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, have all expressed support, Look said.

He and others will be traveling to Washington, D.C., this month to lobby for funding and meet with the chairman of the transportation committee.

While it could be a number of years before funding becomes available, Look said federal participation at some point is crucial.

“When the dust settles, if the federal government hasn’t contributed anything we’re going to have a problem,” he said, “because lot of these projects are just way too costly for us to bear locally.”

Look said officials in Anoka and Sherburne counties realize they face some of the same issues with Highway 10 and it makes sense to both work to accomplish some improvements.

“We’re just working hard, trying to find an outcome to it,” he said. “It’s not going to be a quick outcome, but it’s hopefully going to be a staged outcome that we can get support for and start chipping away at the problem.”

Keeping a high profile for those projects is crucial, Anderson said.

“Sometimes it’s who pushes and pushes harder is who gets the money,” Anderson said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

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