BY GABE LICHT
ST. PAUL, MN Tears were a common sight as family members of crash victims joined members of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition to testify in front of the Senate Transportation Committee March 21 regarding a bill that would provide $15 million in funding for a stretch of road Chair Scott Dibble called “harrowing.”
Among those testifying was Lisa Dahlstrom, who lost her husband, Paul, when he was rear-ended at highway speeds while waiting to turn left onto Hennepin County Road 92 North Aug. 20, 2015.
“When asked how this accident has affected our lives, I struggle to find the words to describe the depths of loss our family is going through,” Dahlstrom said. “My heart broke the day Paul died, but it shattered the day I had to tell our kids that their dad wasn’t coming home.”
She called Highway 12’s road design “unforgiving,” and asked the legislators to do something about it.
“We can make the changes needed to protect drivers and, hopefully, protect another family from experiencing the heartache mine suffers today,” Dahlstrom said.
The family of Paige Duncan is also suffering after the Feb. 15 crash near County Road 92 that took her life, her mother Mary McCauley, and sister, Angela Erickson, said.
“Our lives will suffer this loss of our beautiful daughter, who was just on the way to do a wonderful thing for her sister,” McCauley said. “As a human being, it would be wrong for me, really wrong for us, to turn a blind eye to this proposed legislation when we know the numbers of serious injuries and fatalities are real, and we also know there are small improvements that could be made to protect our loved ones.”
“I have a question for you as elected officials, whose job is not only to represent your constituents, but also protect the lives of those you serve,” Erickson said. “How much is a life worth? I ask today that you support SF2467.”
Tina Langhans urged the legislators to take action after speaking briefly about the loss of her daughter, Chelsea Langhans, who was killed in a head-on crash in Long Lake Aug. 22, 2015.
“I plead, I plead, I beg for funds available to get a median down the highway so cars cannot cross the center line and kill people,” Langhans said. “I have a part of my life that is ripped away and can’t be replaced. We can’t put a dollar amount on human life.”
Chelsea Langhans’ sister, Liz Squire, also pleaded for action.
“This bill is the first step to not only honoring those we have lost like my sister Chelsea, but a commitment and promise to prevent more unnecessary and untimely deaths,” Squire said. “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. Something good has to come out of such horror. We need to take action now.”
West Hennepin Public Safety Department Chief Gary Kroells reinforced the testimony with statistics.
“What we have is 22 people have been killed in the last 60 months,” Kroells said of the 38-mile stretch of highway from Wayzata to Cokato. “Highway 12 through Independence was listed as critical and labeled high risk in this regard for fatal and serious crashes. What was not surprising to me is we are almost double the state average for a similar road for serious and fatal crashes.”
Highway 12 was built in 1930 and has not been upgraded since 1950.
“It is the same road, other than mill and overlay, since 1950,” Kroells said. “It is narrow. It is rural. It leaves very little room for error.”
The bill introduced by Sen. David Osmek includes funding for a centerline barrier from Wayzata to Hennepin County Road 6, re-alignment of County Road 92 with left-turn lanes at the intersection, and safety improvements at Hennepin County Road 90.
“I was surprised something like this could go on for so long and some of these modest changes not be made,” Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer said. “This is exactly why we do fund roads and bridges. I don’t know if MnDOT has an opportunity to respond and how to defend their budget . . . that this kind of target solution for a relatively modest amount couldn’t be included in their budget.”
“I understand MnDOT has a lot of priorities,” Osmek said. “This is becoming a much higher priority. However, I don’t want other communities to miss out on safety funding they are deserving. I want the legislature to get this in play as soon as possible. Appropriating it and saying what we want it for is probably the fastest way to get it done.”
Dibble agreed that it would be appropriate to take action on the bill.
“We never actually earmark specific projects for appropriation,” Dibble said. “I think, given the sense and sentiment, we can at minimum vote on this proposal, send it to full finance (committee), and anticipate it will travel as a separate bill, not as an earmark, but to send a signal that we agree this is a priority we should pay attention to.”
The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full finance committee. If approved at that point, it would then advance to the rules and administration committee before going to the Senate floor for a vote.