Minnesota Sees Economic Gains Through Corridors of Commerce Program
In the quest for funding for transportation infrastructure improvements, advocates often underline the link between better roads and economic development. In creating a new supplemental transportation funding source, legislators in Minnesota put the argument in the title.
Minnesota's "Corridors of Commerce" is a program of competitive state grants, augmented with local funding, that targets transportation routes identified as vital links for regional and statewide economic growth. The program became law during the 2013 legislative session and aims to fulfill two major goals: to provide additional highway capacity on segments where there are currently bottlenecks in the system, and to safely improve the movement of freight and reduce barriers to commerce.
The legislation initially authorized up to $300 million in trunk highway bond sales to fund the program. The funds became available July 1, 2014 for projects that were to begin no later than July 1, 2016. Most of the projects approved were for the addition of lanes to existing roads, with the purpose of freight improvement.
The largest single project is to realign and extend Highway 610 from its current location at Hennepin County Road 81 and Elm Creek Boulevard to I-94 in Maple Grove. Originally approved at $100 million, it is now budgeted at just over $80 million, with the savings redistributed to other Corridors of Commerce projects.
During the 2014 legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature provided an additional $31.5 million in funding for Corridors of Commerce. Of that amount, $6.5 million became available in fiscal year 2014 for projects strictly in Greater Minnesota with $25 million available in fiscal year 2015 for projects statewide. A primary goal of that legislation was to use the funding to prepare potential projects for future construction to come online as funding becomes available. Preparations can include right-of-way purchases, environmental work and design engineering.
Choosing Projects to Fund
In order to be considered for selection, a project must meet a number of criteria, such as being consistent with the statewide multimodal transportation plan, and be located on an interregional corridor or supplemental freight route in Greater Minnesota and on a state trunk highway in the Twin Cities metro area. Projects already programmed for construction in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program are not eligible.
The legislation requires the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to "accept recommendations on candidate projects from area transportation partnerships and other interested stakeholders in each MnDOT district." Public sector partners, stakeholders and interested citizens statewide submitted project recommendations with input from MnDOT district offices. MnDOT received more than 400 submissions representing more than 100 unique projects.
MnDOT evaluates proposals on the basis of project readiness, return on investment and support from the MnDOT district and local and regional agencies. Return on investment criteria weighs safety, travel time and environmental impacts against operating, lifecycle and debt service costs.
One of the projects funded through Corridors of Commerce and approved under the original 2013 funding was a $28.3 million expansion of Interstate 94 from four to six lanes between Highway 241 and Highway 101 northwest of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
The expansion had long been sought as a means to alleviate congestion and rush hour backups on a heavily used commuter and freight route. The recently completed project included adding a lane on each side of the roadway, widening bridges on the Crow River to accommodate the lanes, extending acceleration/deceleration lanes and building a noise wall on the north side of the roadway near Rogers.
When Corridors of Commerce funding was approved, MnDOT District 3 officials were suddenly facing a tight deadline for completion. To help meet the deadline, they decided to implement the project using the design-build process. In design-build a single point of responsibility contract is used to minimize risks for the project owner and to reduce the delivery schedule by overlapping the design and construction phases of the project. The contract was awarded to Hoffman - PCI Roads.
Officials broke ground in June 2014, with preliminary work and construction of crossovers beginning in fall 2014, and the rest of the work completed during the 2015 construction season, reconstructing the roadway and add one lane in each direction, while maintaining two lanes of traffic in each direction during non-rush hours, keeping all I-94 ramps open.
During the project, Hoffman-PCI, MnDOT staff and oversight teams were co-housed in office space at the St. Michael City Hall. The office arrangements helped with coordination and communication, enabling quicker decisions as designs and refinements could be proposed, reviewed and approved quickly during the construction process.
The project was completed on time and on October 13, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and local officials dedicated the I-94 expansion at a ceremony in front of the FedEx Distribution Center in Rogers.
Improving Northern Minnesota
The largest upcoming Corridors of Commerce project is aimed at improving the route to northern Minnesota. The program will provide $45 million of funding for a total $58 million project to expand Highway 371 to four lanes from Nisswa to Jenkins. The project will also add road and Paul Bunyan Trail connections and construct bridges over Cullen Brook.
In announcing the project, MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said, "The Highway 371 project will provide better roads for businesses in that corridor as well as for the many Minnesotans who travel to that area for recreation." He noted that the project had been moved ahead by two years thanks to MnDOT cost savings and efficiencies work.
What does the future hold for Corridors of Commerce? At the beginning of this year, Governor Dayton proposed a comprehensive 10-year transportation improvement plan, which included a $1.6 billion in funding for Corridors of Commerce. That proposal was not taken up in the new biennial budget enacted in June (Fiscal Year 2016-2017), which also did not include any new allocation for the program. However officials say it is likely the issue will be up for discussion when the state legislature convenes again in March. Meanwhile, work will continue on projects already funded by the Corridors of Commerce program.