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Highway 12 safety the focus of feds' visit
June 21, 2019

BY GABE LICHT
Editor

DELANO, MN – More than two dozen people have been killed on Highway 12 between Maple Plain and the Meeker County line since 2011.

US Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minnesota), who calls Delano home, brought colleagues from the federal government to see the road and learn more about it Friday, June 14.

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Deputy Administrator Brandye Hendrickson, FHWA Division Administrator Wendall Meyer, and United States Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary for Governmental Affairs Adam Sullivan joined Emmer, along with state and local officials, for a presentation, tour, and roundtable discussion regarding Highway 12.

“To meet people and understand the community impact of the safety issues here was really impactful for me,” Hendrickson said.

Thom Dieterich, who lost his daughter Marleena to a crash on Highway 12 in March, said he wanted to add more impact.

He spoke of Marleena’s untapped potential that was never able to come to fruition.

“She will never provide enough impact to get things changed,” Dieterich said. “It’s only through your representation that anything gets changed. There has to be some urgency assigned to this.”

He talked about the highway’s shortcomings.

“Highway 12 is absolutely unforgiving to any error: driver error, environmental error, or engineering error,” Dieterich said. “There are metro levels of traffic, a lot of freight, and no improvements to it. US Highway 12 has been engineered to minimize survivability in the event of an accident.”

Emmer empathized with Dieterich and said that the cycle of deaths, reaction, and inaction must come to an end.

“The community suffers and experiences grief, we go through the process, and then it disappears until it happens again,” Emmer said. “There is no way we could find another stretch of road in this state claiming so many lives and the impact on so many families. The cost that we’ve incurred, the loss of talent, the potential contributions these people could make, you can’t tell me the money we’d be looking for from state, feds, counties, that it won’t pay for itself in a short period of time.”

In terms of federal funding to address those issues, Hendrickson said the options are limited.

“Primarily, our funds go out through formula funding to the states,” she said. “We have a block grant program that goes to states and the national highway improvement program . . . While we have some discretion, primarily, our funds go out via the formula and we work with states to implement safety upgrades.”

West Hennepin Public Safety Department Chief Gary Kroells, who serves as chair of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition, shared frustration that Highway 12 in Independence can’t compete with interstate projects because of the formulas in place.

“Safety should trump congestion every day,” he said.

“In terms of being a small, rural community, we are definitely sympathetic to that,” Sullivan said. “The secretary has made this a priority for the last two years. For the last several years, the ratio of urban to rural projects has been very lopsided in favor of urban cores. She’s flipped the paradigm to go two-thirds the other way to make up for the neglect in small, rural communities.”

The coalition, or the state on behalf of the coalition, could apply for a grant for improvements. The application process for those grants is open until the end of July.

Hendrickson said such a grant application should include priorities for what areas should be addressed, specific designs for improvements, and cost estimates.

“I want to manage expectations in terms of this grant application process,” Hendrickson said. “There is no project yet. I think it would be very hard, no matter how much time is put into it for it to be a competitive application.”

Preparing for the grant process could cost $1 million.

“We don’t have the resources or money to make a grant application,” Kroells said. “We lean on MnDOT.”

MnDOT Federal Relations Manager Serge Phillips said the agency would be able to help with the grant application, as it has done with other communities.

State Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano) also said the highway is on the radar of Gov. Tim Walz and MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

“I believe she’s going to be a champion for Highway 12 moving forward,” McDonald said. “She gets it. Her heart is there. She’s working to come up with plans.”

MnDOT is working toward plans for the Hennepin County Road 92 intersection with Highway 12.

Kroells said the preferred approach to that intersection is estimated at $3 million more than funds currently available. Because that option would be unlikely to be fully funded, MnDOT officials do not want to show it to the public during an open house in July.

“There are coalition members like myself and (Independence Mayor) Marvin Johnson who say, ‘No, it’s the possible right solution. Let’s show it and see if we can find the money,’” Kroells said.

Meyer encouraged them to do so.

Officials need to settle on a design by November so the project can go out for bids in January 2020, Kroells said.

Both Emmer and McDonald bemoaned the fact that they could not allocate or earmark funds specifically for Highway 12.

“The only way we got funding was the bonding bill, where you can appropriate certain projects,” McDonald said.

Overall, Emmer asked Kroells what the coalition wants from him and his colleagues in Washington.

“I’d like the feds and Minnesota to put together a plan to fix Highway 12 from Maple Plain to Delano,” he said.

“She’s committed to it,” Phillips said of Anderson Kelliher. “I have full confidence. I don’t have that answer that it’s done. She’s trying to find a source for it. She’s resourceful, both politically and internally.”

Emmer thanked everyone involved for their participation.

“This experience leaves a mark,” he said. “You’re not going to forget this. To MnDOT, thank you, and please thank Margaret for jumping in. Thank you, Thom, that you took time despite your grief to sit down and make it personal. Hopefully, we’re going to get it fixed soon.”

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