Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Aug. 13, 2001

Long-time highway engineer hits the road

By Gail Lipe

"I've enjoyed working here. Every one of these people make great neighbors. I could not imagine a better place to work," said Rick Kjonaas, McLeod County engineer.

Kjonaas has resigned after 15 years as McLeod County engineer to work with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) as an assistant state aid engineer.

He began working in McLeod County on Aug. 1, 1986. His first day with MnDOT will be Aug. 8.

The job with MnDOT will be a new challenge, said Kjonaas. He said it will take him a while to learn it.

County highway departments receive 50 percent of their funds from the state through gas taxes and license tab fees. The other 50 percent comes through local levy money.

Kjonaas said the assistant state aid engineer position is a resource for the counties, as well as oversees programs funded by the gas taxes and license tab fees.

His department will be collecting the taxes and fees, distributing funds to different government agencies and overseeing how it is used.

He said it also will be a resource for highway departments, helping them to find the best way to solve a problem.

Kjonaas will be sharing the responsibilities of the position with Julie Shallman, who already works with MnDOT. He said he has worked with her in his position as county engineer, and is looking forward to working with her at MnDOT.

It is hard work in the trenches for county and municipal engineers, said Kjonaas. He said sometimes it can be overwhelming.

Over the last 15 years, Kjonaas said there have been positive changes and disappointments.

When Kjonaas arrived in McLeod County, there were 380 miles of county roads, and now there are 401 miles of county road. He said a large part of the growth is due to Highway 261 going back to the county.

He said there were 240 miles of paved road, and now there are 290 miles.

Many county roads have been rebuilt to modern standards, which means they have been built to a 10-ton limit designed with shoulders, he said.

Blacktop was put on 60 miles of the 401 miles of county roads. A lot of those are in or near the nine cities, said Kjonaas. He said the highway department has been trying to complete a grid of blacktop roads throughout the county.

Another positive growth in the county over the last 15 years is the number of bridges that were rebuilt. Kjonaas said that 25 out of the 92 bridges in McLeod County were rebuilt.

He said 10 more need to be, and seven of those are projects slated to be done.

The townships get credit for a lot of that, said Kjonaas. He said the township supervisors are "progressive.

"People should stop and look under a five-ton limit bridge," said Kjonaas. He said the bridges are inspected annually, and five-ton limit bridges are really deteriorating.

Kjonaas said there was only one computer in the highway department office when he got there, and it was used only for accounting. Now everyone has a computer at their desk.

The employees were concerned when they first got computers. "When I got here, the guys designed in the winter and built in the summer," said Kjonaas. He said the employees were afraid there would not be enough work for everyone.

But it was not so hard to do right-of-ways. "They are a lot more complicated now," said Kjonaas. There are many more issues that they have to iron out.

Another program that has been beneficial to the county is the computer mapping that has been taking place.

Kjonaas said one of the sad things is that people are less willing to pay taxes for the services they require. Road maintenance or growth is difficult.

"We are having to do more with less, or do less because there is not enough money to keep up," said Kjonaas. "We have to make decisions like that every year."

He said jobs have been streamlined to continue to provide the services, but the minimal increases in budget make it difficult.

Active partnerships that have been formed with MnDOT, the 14 townships and all nine cities has helped, said Kjonaas. The partnerships help the projects get done quicker and more efficiently.

"It allows all of us to be more efficient," he said. "It is pleasing that we have partnerships in place with every community, and they are working."

Because increases have been minimal and costs of maintenance continue to increase, it is hard to stay competitive with wages.

"Money that could have been available for wages had to go to service demands on the roads," said Kjonaas. "With levy limits, we cannot get more money. Wages are not as competitive as they used to be."

He said he does not understand why the Legislature has to put levy limits on the county.

Kjonaas also said fewer people are going into the business of highways, either maintenance or engineers. With the shortage, wages are increasing in the west to get people to come there and wages meet the cost of living in the Twin Cities.

"We are caught between the east and west," said Kjonaas. "We are training people and then losing them to a more competitive wage."

He said the highway department is between $2 million and $3 million behind in overlay projects, which makes it hard to look at wage increases. The county will need to address the wages soon, which Kjonaas said will have to be dealt with gradually.

Another disappointment is that three comprehensive transportation studies have been done in Glencoe the last 10 years, but each time it has come forward it has been shot down. "It is a tremendous amount of wasted money," Kjonaas said.

The city voted on them with hearings and public comment, and twice they were shot down, with the current one off to a rocky start.

Each time it is shot down, the whole process starts over trying to find the best way to take care of the transportation needs. Kjonaas said it takes three years to do that.

He said the themes of all the plans were pretty much the same, even though the priorities may have been a little different.

"The people of Glencoe do know that a road is needed on Morningside, but what does it look like?" he said. "The issue today is not that the Morningside road is the wrong road, but the consensus of all the interested parties was not there on the transportation study. I don't know if a balance can be made or not."

The river running through town and the railroad are large problems for transportation. Kjonaas said all other eight cities in the county have a transportation plan and are working towards it. Maybe Glencoe's problems are bigger, he said.

The transportation plan is necessary for state funding. If the plan has consensus of all the interested parties, the money is easier to find. "Money does not get spent on controversial projects as easily," said Kjonaas.

"No progress can be made until the plan is done," he said. "It saddens me to see all the turmoil in Glencoe. It should not have to be that way. There has to be a way for Glencoe to get past that."

He said the county has worked with Glencoe on Ford Avenue, County Road 33, County Road 3 to Lake Marion and County Road 2 north and south of Glencoe.

"Progress is being made, but the still missing piece is how Glencoe will find a better way to route trucks around town and a better way to get south of Buffalo Creek," said Kjonaas.

"Everybody is admitting the needs are there," he said. He said everyone should get together and come up with a plan that meets everyone's needs.

The most rewarding part of Kjonaas's job has been the people and the partnerships.

"The people have been so enjoyable to work with," he said. "Very rarely have the people blamed someone else and personalized the problems.

Kjonaas said the 22 people he works with genuinely enjoy their jobs. He said they approach the problems as a team. Everyone is in it to help everyone, and they do not let big problems ruin the day.

He also said the other department heads in the county are great to work with. Problems do not lead to bickering.

"I will miss it," he said. "It is hard to say good-bye."

Kjonaas will be in the office in McLeod County on an average of one day per week after Aug. 8 until October. He said, hopefully, there will be someone to take his place before then.

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