BY GABE LICHT
ST. PAUL, MN About 90 people packed a hearing room at the state capitol Wednesday evening to show support for a bill to provide $15 million for safety upgrades to Highway 12.
The House Transportation, Police, and Finance Committee ultimately referred the bill, HF 2847, to the Capital Investment Committee.
Reps. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, and Joe McDonald, R-Delano, co-authored the bill, and introduced it together.
“About two years ago, Joe and I noticed there were a number of serious crashes on the stretch of Highway we both frequently drive to and from the Capitol each day,” Hertaus said.
The two worked with all the cities along Highway 12 from Wayzata to Cokato, along with representatives from Hennepin and Wright counties, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to form the Highway 12 Safety Coalition, which commissioned a safety audit of the 38-mile stretch of highway.
“After that safety audit was completed, it became very clear there was a preponderance of very serious and fatal crashes between Wayzata and Delano,” Hertaus said.
HF 2847 would provide funding for re-alignment of Hennepin County Road 92 with left-turn lanes, safety improvements at the intersection with Hennepin County Road 90, and a median barrier from the interchange with Wayzata Boulevard in Wayzata to about one-half mile east of the interchange with Hennepin County Road 6.
West Hennepin Public Safety Director Gary Kroells, the chair of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition, introduced the committee members to several individuals who were killed on Highway 12: Mayla Macon, Jamie Whipperman, Kevin Crowley, Kevin Orr, Aaron Jaunich, Bruce and Arlana Harris, Terrance Anderson, Paige Duncan, Paul Dahlstrom, and Chelsea Langhans.
“It’s quite personal, as well, for me. Three of these folks were dear friends of the family,” McDonald said.
Family members of some of those victims also spoke during the hearing.
Dahlstrom’s wife, Lisa, told the committee, “His absence is felt every day in our lives. Every day, I wake up to an empty spot on his side of the bed and we sit down for meals with an empty chair at the table. Our children (ages 3 and 5) struggle to understand why.”
Dahlstrom was killed when he was hit from behind while waiting to turn left onto County Road 92 North.
“The area of Highway 12 where my husband was hit did not have a turn lane, only bypass lanes,” Dahlstrom said. “A turn lane would have given Paul a safe place to wait out of the flow of traffic to make his turn. Had there been a turn lane, my husband might still be here today.”
Mary McCauley, the mother of Duncan, added, “As a mother, I wish these improvements had already happened. Paige may still be here.”
“This wasn’t a case of cell-phone misuse,” McCauley said. “She wasn’t driving home after a night of partying. She was simply trying to do something wonderful for her sister.”
Tina Langhans pointed to a large photo of Chelsea Langhans.
“This is my daughter. She can’t be here today,” she said with tears in her eyes. “She would’ve loved to be here today.”
Langhans said, had there been a median down the center of the road, her daughter would still be with her today.
She asked for action.
“We’re begging for the funds to fix this highway,” Langhans said. “The stats don’t lie. People are dying far too frequently. We hope for the funds, we beg for the funds to fix this road so no other families have to feel the loss and pain as we do.”
“Though we are surrounded by a lot of love, as you see today, we will never stop grieving the loss of our dear Chelsea,” added Liz Squire, Chelsea Langhans’ sister. “ . . . No family should have to know this feeling of losing a loved one so suddenly in a car crash, but the reality is too many families feel this . . . We need to take action now.”
McDonald believes passing the bill would be an appropriate, and effective, action.
“In front of you, you have a one-page bill,” McDonald said. “I hate to sensationalize it, and I don’t intend to, but this one-page bill, if it becomes law, it could literally save lives on what is now known as the deadliest stretch of highway in the state.”
Hertaus acknowledged that $15 million would not fix every problem with Highway 12, saying, “This is to really address the three biggest problems that were identified in the safety audit.”
He noted that the Hennepin County Engineer’s Office has begun pre-design work for how the intersections could be improved. He added that Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle sees Highway 12 improvements as a priority.
“He said, if you provide the funding, he will move it up the ladder quickly,” Hertaus said. “He even suggested they could install the jersey wall barriers yet this fall.”
Hertaus also believes the process of re-aligning County Road 92 could move fairly quickly.
“For the land acquisition, there are willing land owners who will cooperate in terms of having their land bifurcated to re-align the county road,” Hertaus said.
Discussion of the bill was limited, with only Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, who compared Highway 12 to Highway 41, and talked about other problematic highways throughout the state.
“I think it’s an important point that we have tremendous problems around the state, and also in the metro area,” Erhardt said. “I don’t doubt there’s a problem here, from the testimony I’ve heard. I’m just wondering if everyone is aware there are other areas in the state.”
Chair Tim Kelly, R-RedWing, pointed to other highway-related bills the committee has heard and said, “I think everyone does understand that. What we’re here for tonight is this bill.”
Kelly then made the motion to advance the bill to the Capital Investment Committee, which was unanimously approved.