ST. PAUL - Rural Republican state lawmakers say Minnesota Department of Transportation officials only funded Twin Cities-area projects from the Corridors of Commerce program.
Two of the four projects to get funding are in the Twin Cities and two are on its edge. None of the projects announced Tuesday, May 1, is in what the rural Legislators consider greater Minnesota.
"It's astonishing that MnDOT would select four projects with massive price tags all within 50 miles of Minneapolis and Saint Paul," House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said. "It's clear that changes are needed to ensure a more balanced approach for the Corridors of Commerce program moving forward."
Torkelson and his colleagues reacted to MnDOT's announcement that four projects would split $417 million in the next four years. Corridors of Commerce is designed to support transportation that helps Minnesota's economy, such as improving roads between regional centers.
The four projects are:
• U.S. 169 in Elk River.
• Interstate 494 from France Avenue to Minnesota 77 in the Twin Cities.
• Interstate 494 at Interstate 35W.
• Interstate 94 from St. Michael to Albertville.
MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said he understood the complaints.
"We also are disappointed that some of the projects that we considered of great critical nature" did not rank high enough for funding, Zelle said.
The department uses "very objective criteria and objective scoring system" to determine what segments of highway get funded, Zelle said.
Rural highways Minnesota 23 and U.S. 14 are next on the greater Minnesota list, he said, after the Elk River and St. Michael segments.
Funds are supposed to be split evenly between the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. Zelle said the department's Twin Cities district is comprised of eight counties; the rest of the state is greater Minnesota.
Even though the Elk River and St. Michael projects are near the Twin Cities, they technicall are in greater Minnesota, Zelle said, and the department needs to use the same criteria from year to year.
Some lawmakers liked the announcement, at least if projects were in their areas.
"This is great news for Minnesota," Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Edina, said about the 494-35W project. "Statewide users of one of the busiest interstate interchanges will now see much deserved and overdue congestion relief."
Rural lawmakers, however, were not happy.
"I really feel they didn't get the fair shake they deserved with the department," Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said about rural projects. "This metro-centric thinking that we're dealing with here on ditch mowing, on buffers and the rest, now it seems to be playing through with the awarding of the dollars here with the Corridors of Commerce program."
Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president, said the Tuesday announcement showed "a massive failure" to address statewide needs.
"There is far more to Minnesota than a 40-mile radius around U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but you certainly wouldn't know that from looking at the 2018 awards," the mayor said. "We demand that the Legislature take immediate action to suspend MnDOT's decision so that the program can be re-evaluated and brought in line with its original purpose."
Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said MnDOT violated state law that requires "regional balance" in Corridors of Commerce projects. The "announcement shows the agency is more interested in funding Twin Cities-area projects than meeting the growing needs of commerce and individuals in our rural communities," he said.