Kandiyohi County awarded millions for highway-rail grade separation project south of Willmar


— When Kandiyohi County Public Works Director Mel Odens first got the email Monday morning about the Federal Rail Administration grant the county had applied for last fall to partially fund the County State Aid Highway 55 Highway-Rail Grade Separation project, he wasn't optimistic. Odens and the county have tried unsuccessfully for several years to get state bonding funds to help with the project to no avail.

"We were 0 for 6," Odens said at Tuesday's

Kandiyohi County Board


However, when Odens opened the email, the first word was "Congratulations" and Odens could barely believe it. Kandiyohi County was awarded $4.8 million from the FRA Railroad Crossing Elimination program. The funds will help finish a project that will improve traffic safety and movement at the complicated intersection of Minnesota

Highway 23

and CSAH 55, 15 and 5.

"It is almost surreal for me," Odens said, after so many years of grant requests and denials.

The project, with an estimated total price tag of $11.88 million, includes the construction of a bridge over the BNSF Railways line that currently crosses CSAH 55 at-grade, meaning vehicles and trains are on the same level and could come into conflict with each other. With the proposed bridge, traffic will travel over the tracks, eliminating any risk of trains hitting vehicles or pedestrians.

Also in the project is the reconstruction of one mile of CSAH 55 and a reconfiguration of the intersection of CSAH 55 and 5 to better move vehicle traffic through it.

"This is good news for the county," Odens said.

In a separate, but still important, part of the overall project, the

Minnesota Department of Transportation

is set to start construction of the diamond interchange at Highway 23 and CSAH 5, including adding the three remaining on/off ramps in July. With all these pieces added together it makes for a much easier road network to traverse, not to mention safer.

"With the different improvements, the highway safety, motorist safety portion of this is very much enhanced now," said Commissioner Steve Gardner. "It is going to be a corridor for commerce. There really is nothing not to like about this."

Kandiyohi County

has already put about $2 million into the project, including constructing a temporary connection between CSAH 55, 5 and 15. The federal grant will pay for about half of the remaining costs to complete the project, with the county taking care of the balance through the

2017 local option sales tax

, approved by the county board to fund four road projects, including this one.

The county has been working on the

CSAH 55 Highway-Rail Grade project

for several years and construction has been broken up into three different phases. Odens hopes to go out for bids for this last phase of the project next year, once all the plans are completed, which is right on schedule. He said he understands the public might be a bit frustrated with how stretched out construction on this project has been.

"Traffic control in this area is very complicated," Odens said. "If you close anything down over here you have to drive all the way through town."

The county board was thrilled to hear about the awarded grant, as it too has been lobbying for years to get state or federal funding to help with the costs. County Commissioner Roger Imdieke said he is the only current commissioner who was on the board when the county first requested state bonding funds for the project.

"In baseball terms, we struck out at every at bat. So this is very exciting," Imdieke said of the federal grant award. "Mel did a phenomenal job and we have a lot of people to thank for this. "

In an interview with the West Central Tribune following the county board meeting, Odens spoke on how relieved he is that the county was finally able to get a grant to help with paying for this project.

"It is Christmas in July almost. It is amazing, all the hard work, all the hopes are paying off," Odens said

As a public works engineer, he believes this project checks a lot of boxes, including economic development and public safety. There have been major developments completed and upcoming in the Willmar Industrial Park just north of the project area, and once this project is completed, those businesses will be connected to an efficient and safe travel corridor.

"This is really good news, to actually complete a major heavy commercial corridor," Odens said. "It is a good link; you don't have to go through Willmar anymore; it reduces the conflict points. It is just a good project."