Officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) visited the Pine River Depot on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to speak to the public about MnDOT’s current financial position and discuss area projects.
MnDOT staff answered questions on local projects, including the Highway 371 four-lane expansion from Nisswa to Jenkins in 2018. MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle had planned to attend, but had a death in the family that day. Chief of staff Eric Davis spoke at the meeting along with other MnDOT staff members.
Davis said the majority of MnDOT’s funding comes from a gas tax. Funding isn’t adequate, though, as people are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles — ultimately a good thing, Davis said — and the gas tax is fixed and doesn’t move with inflation.
Though 16 states raised their gas taxes last year, the bill for Minnesota has no sponsor and it’s not a budget year, Davis said.
MnDOT’s statewide vision, Davis said, is focused on the health of people, the environment and the economy.
Davis said MnDOT will have to make use of innovative solutions, and, “We can’t build ourselves out of every situation,” he said.
“We know how to achieve the vision, but lack the added funding to do so,” he said.
Pine River Chamber of Commerce Director John Wetrosky said he’s been getting questions from the business community on how firm funding is to go through with the Highway 371 work from Nisswa to Jenkins in 2018.
MnDOT district engineer Dan Anderson said MnDOT is buying right-of-way in 2015, so MnDOT is committed to construction in 2018.
As for any work north of the intersection of Highway 371 and County Road 16 in Jenkins, no time frame has been identified.
Project development engineer Jim Hallgren said MnDOT has an environmental study for the area of Highway 371 through Pine River, but that’s as far as the project’s gotten.
Hallgren said the biggest hurdle is funding. “Until funding is available, it’s not possible to say when,” he said.
Another citizen asked about the possibility of four lanes through Pine River.
Davis said MnDOT wants to make improvements in the community, but the bottom line is that it can’t in its current budget system. Even in its present budget situation, Davis said, roads and bridges will deteriorate. He said MnDOT needs to ask if its transportation system isn’t too large.
Quinn Swanson, sustainability programs coordinator for Happy Dancing Turtle, asked about the proposals for bike lanes on Barclay Avenue in Pine River. The city has signed a resolution of support, she said.
Hallgren said MnDOT has received the request from the city, and has asked the bike and pedestrian office to get involved and come up with ideas.
Wetrosky asked about possibilities for the future of the dam in Pine River.
“That project is small but it’s a bugger of a project,” Hallgren said, explaining that it’s a MnDOT bridge attached to a city-owned dam on a river where the Department of Natural Resources would like to add fish access through the dam.
“That is this murky, murky project right now. We’ll flesh out ideas and work on hearing those discussions,” Hallgren said.
Another citizen asked whether making road improvements in a community improved the local economy.
“There are success stories, and other communities that haven’t changed dramatically,” Davis said. “We’re trying to understand that more than we do today.”
Davis said that annually MnDOT manages $2.9 billion and 12,000 miles of roadway.