If you’ve driven on U.S. Highway 52 south of Rochester, you know that our state’s infrastructure problems are not limited to bridges in Minneapolis. With rough pavement, excessive turns and shoulders that are crumbling, the two-lane highway is the main link between Rochester and towns south and east.
Highway 52 was one of the top concerns of citizens and presenters at a bonding community forum held in Lanesboro October 11. The meeting, co-hosted by State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-Minneapolis, and State Rep. Ken Tschumber, DFL-La Crescent, focused on the infrastructure needs of Southeast Minnesota.
John Grindeland, the Fillmore County Engineer, was blunt, saying Highway 52 was in “dire need of reconstruction,” and assailing the Minnesota Department of Transportation for failing to make it a priority.
“The two sections, from Fountain to Chatfield and Chatfield to Marion, aren’t even on the MnDOT agenda through 2030,” Grindeland said. “I realize on a priority list it’s obviously not important to MnDOT.”
State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, asked Grindeland, “What are the major problems on Highway 52? Is it cracked pavement? Narrow shoulders? Deterioration?” Before Grindeland could reply, several in the audience replied with an emphatic, “Yes!”
Tschumper added, “My understanding is that MnDOT, due to lack of funding, is doing overlays to save money.” Grindeland agreed, calling MnDOT’s plans a “bandaid solution.”
Grindeland called for an increase in the state’s gas tax, saying, “I was here the last time we got one cent [per gallon] back in 1988, and if I got 20 cents then for a budget, I get the same 20 cents now,” adding, “I actually had high hopes the last two times the [transportation] bill was passed and vetoed.”
Tschumper told the crowd, “My top legislative priority will be to get Highway 52 fixed.”
While Highway 52 drew the sharpest rhetoric, it was far from the only item on the agenda. The proposed Midwest Regional Rail Line linking St. Paul to Chicago, drew strong support from a number of speakers. The line would as currently envisioned utilize existing freight rail lines, with stops in Red Wing, Winona and La Crosse, Wisconsin. Alexander Metcalf, a consultant who has done a number of studies on rail feasibility for Minnesota, was optimistic.
“The first time we studied this, back in 1991, this was kind of iffy,” said Metcalf. “But now we find ourselves in a brand-new situation.”
Hausman agreed, noting that the line could carry 872,000 riders between St. Paul and Chicago annually.
Presenters from Rochester made sure to voice their strong belief that a rail line should also connect Rochester to the Twin Cities. Dan Litwiller of Livable Rochester said, “We would like to see developments in the coming years that reduce dependence on automobiles.”
And Rochester City Council member Marcia Marcoux agreed, saying, “Our economy needs improved connections within the region and nationally,” and that those included high-speed rail connections between the Twin Cities, Rochester, and Chicago.
Hausman said that while she understood some disappointment that the Midwest Regional Rail Line was no longer routed through Rochester, “even though this hasn’t gone the way Rochester hoped, can we capitalize on stops in Winona and La Crosse?”
A number of presenters suggested a way to capitalize would be to improve on and expand the Root River Bike Trail. Tom VanderLinden of the Southern Minnesota Association for Regional Trails (SMART) urged lawmakers to expand the trail to connect with a similar trail in Wisconsin. He said that by expanding the Root River Trail all the way to the Mississippi, “You could conceivably ride high-speed rail from Chicago to La Crosse/La Crescent, get on you bike and ride it to Lanesboro, and then catch a bus to Rochester — and people will do that.”
Dave Harrenstein of the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce agreed that the trail was vital, bringing strong economic growth into the bluffs region. But he added, “The Root River Trail is showing its age. The state of Minnesota has done a poor job of maintaining the trails.”
Dave Huisengay, also with the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce, agreed. Saying the trail is “a primary reason for the success of our town,” Huisengay noted that its level of disrepair was causing problems for guests at the bed and breakfast he and his wife own.
“In 2006, two of our guests suffered serious accidents,” he said. “In both cases, the condition of the trail was the likely cause.”
The meeting closed with a call for increased funding of infrastructure. State Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, made a point of asking the crowd, “Please raise your hand if you believe the ‘no new taxes’ policy has moved us forward.” No hands were raised in the crowd.
But Urdahl felt compelled to offer a rebuttal.
“When you ask people if they want their taxes raised,” he said, “they always say ‘no.'”