Highway 14 expansion nearly at hand

·5 min read

Jan. 23—COURTLAND — The marathon effort to expand Highway 14 from two lanes to four from Rochester to New Ulm — one of the lengthiest lobbying efforts ever undertaken in southern Minnesota — has a finish line in sight. And the selection has been made for who will run the anchor leg.

Hoffman Construction of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, was the low bidder among four seeking the job of completing the Highway 14 expansion between Nicollet and New Ulm. The company's $83.5 million bid is expected to receive final approval in coming days, said Todd Kjolstad of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Work on the final 12.5-mile segment can begin as soon as weather allows, which most likely means early April, said Kjolstad, MnDOT's construction supervisor for the project.

As the price tag suggests, it's a big project — probably the most extensive undertaken by MnDOT's Mankato-based District 7 since the Highway 14 expansion in the Waseca area, including a bypass of that city, a decade ago, he said. It will likely be the largest project the district will tackle for some years to come as well.

So even in the depths of winter and with construction still more than two months away, MnDOT is beginning its public education efforts to prepare drivers for disruption and detours.

The work from just west of Nicollet to New Ulm will close Highway 14 to through-traffic for about 18 months, and that means big impacts for commuters, truckers and people who use Highway 14 and for their counterparts on Highway 68.

Traffic normally using Highway 14 from Mankato to New Ulm will be diverted down Highway 169 across the Minnesota River to Highway 68. The route adds about four miles and five minutes to a trip between the Highway 14/169 interchange in Mankato and downtown New Ulm.

It wasn't feasible to keep the existing Highway 14 open to traffic while the additional two lanes are constructed, later putting two-way traffic on the new lanes while the old highway is reconstructed, Kjolstad said. While that approach has been used on some four-lane expansions, there's simply too much work to be done on this segment of Highway 14 to allow it to be conducted while traffic is flowing nearby.

Along with adding two driving lanes to Highway 14, the project includes freeway-style interchanges at Courtland and at the eastern entrance to New Ulm (County Road 37/20th S. Street). And the alignment of the highway will shift at Courtland, creating a bypass north of the town rather than bisecting it.

In addition, less dangerous intersections will be added at Minnesota Valley Lutheran School, at the rural subdivision near New Ulm served by Jeremy Drive/Kohn Drive and at New Ulm Quartzite Quarries. Turn lanes are planned at all public roads, and a snow fence will be put in place between Courtland and Nicollet.

Some intersections also will be realigned to create right-angle junctions with Highway 14, rather than the current obtuse and acute angles that force drivers to look over their shoulder for gaps in the traffic when trying to enter Highway 14.

All of those efforts will boost the highway's efficiency and safety when they're completed, but the opposite situation would exist during construction if traffic was allowed to continue to flow, Kjolstad said.

"It would be inefficient and not very safe at all," he said, adding that Highway 68 is a good alternate route. "It's really not that far out of the way."

The geography of the area limits the options, too. The Minnesota River is just south of Highway 14, and the sprawling Swan Lake is just to the north.

The detour is expected to be in place not only during the next two construction seasons but also during the winter months a year from now.

Barring extremely bad weather or major surprises during construction, the project should be completed well before winter weather hits late in 2023, Kjolstad said.

"It's our intention that we would have it open to the traveling public prior to Oct. 15, 2023," he said, adding that some landscaping might be required the following spring — minor work that wouldn't affect traffic.

A bit of suffering by commuters during the next two years will pay off in the long run, Kjolstad predicted.

The new design will bring an end to head-to-head traffic on a highway with a disproportionate number of trucks. Drivers will no longer need to be frustrated if they're trapped behind plodding drivers or frightened by impatient drivers passing when there's not enough of a gap to pass. The dangerous at-grade intersection at the edge of New Ulm will be replaced with an overpass, complete with teardrop roundabouts where the ramps meet County Road 37. And Courtland pedestrians won't have thousands of vehicles roaring through town.

"Hopefully, it's going to be a little easier commute," he said.

And it will be the culmination of more than a half-century of effort by Highway 14 towns, businesses, residents, lawmakers and emergency responders to create an unbroken 100-mile stretch of four-lane expressway connecting Rochester, Owatonna, Waseca, Mankato and New Ulm.

More details about the project, including detours maps and a video explanation of what's coming, can be found at https://www.dot.state.mn.us/d7/projects/14newulmtonmankato/