The 65th interchange saga - the extended version
Here's the director's cut version of Jeffery Pieters' great story on the outlook for a new highway interchange on U.S. 52 at Rochester's 65th Street Northwest.
A U.S. 52 interchange at 65th Street Northwest in Rochester is not
coming before 2011 — if, in fact, it winds up being built at all.
That is what local officials heard during a mediated discussion meeting Friday. The three-hour meeting, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation ombudsman’s office, was at the Olmsted County Public Health building.
“I would describe it as a problem-solving meeting,” said state Sen. David Senjem. “What can the city of Rochester and MnDOT do to effectively move along projects?”
In this case, Senjem and others learned, the project is constrained by federal and state planning rules.
A $794,000 study, being conducted for the two government entities by SRF Consulting Group, is a prerequisite to any federal funding or project approval.
The study, covering about 2.5 square miles around the area where the interchange is proposed, will take about a year. Land acquisition and project planning must wait until the study is done.
“We’re talking about spending millions of dollars in public funds,” said Greg Paulson, second-in-command at MnDOT’s Rochester office. “We want to make sure we’re doing it in the proper way.”
That includes taking a look at traffic characteristics in a wide area around the proposed interchange to justify the project, Paulson said.
The interchange proposal has been a point of contention for state and city officials for the better part of this decade.
An interchange at 65th Street was not approved as part of the 2003 ROC 52 project, an 11-mile, $240 million facelift of the city’s freeway.
But at the time, Rochester got permission to upgrade the 65th Street bridge over U.S. 52 to one suitable for an eventual interchange. That was at the city’s cost.
The city also committed $2.5 million in local-option sales tax revenues to interchange construction. That is the only known funding source for the project now.The stalled interchange is what’s holding up construction of a new north-side Menards store and a nearby mall-sized retail development, said Tom Leonard, spokesman for IBEW Local #343.
Together, the two projects would account for some 300 construction jobs and 2,000 to 3,000 permanent full-time jobs, Leonard said. The finished project would produce an ongoing tax revenue stream of some $168 million per year, he said.
“Here we’ve got a project they can spend $6 million on ... and create all these jobs and nobody’s paying attention to it,” Leonard said.
He attended the Friday meeting and “had a better feeling leaving there than I did going in.”
In fact, Leonard speculated that interchange construction could begin as soon as the spring, but his speculation was not supported by any of the state or city officials contacted for this story.
Senjem, who proposed legislation each of the last two legislative sessions to force MnDOT approval of the interchange, came away from the meeting with a sense of grim acceptance.
“I think it was a good meeting to have,” he said. “I probably understand the process a lot better. I may not appreciate it, but I understand it.”
State and city officials meet twice monthly to discuss progress on the SRF study, said Rhonda Prestegard of MnDOT.