Highway 23 four-lane project from Willmar to I-94 needs community push

hwy 23

WILLMAR—A loose-knit coalition of local transportation advocates may soon be reinvented—and reignited—in its mission to complete a four-lane route between Willmar and St. Cloud.

The group has been lobbying for decades to make state Highway 23 a four-lane link to Interstate 94.

Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, wants to broaden that coalition to bring in more community partners and give the group more structure that could deliver a heftier punch when lobbying for new construction money.

Backman is hosting a meeting Thursday morning in New London to bring old and new Highway 23 advocates to the table.

There, he will suggest that the group consider creating a formal organization—that could include electing officers and seeking contributions to pay for brochures and other lobbying expenses—that could get the attention of lawmakers.

Backman said he’s seen it work in other parts of the state where more formal, organized efforts have helped amplify the squeak of the squeaky wheel to obtain project funding.

Significant progress has been made on the Highway 23 project, including the four-lane through Spicer and four-lane bypass around Paynesville.

But there are 15 miles of two-lane road left in the 53-mile corridor, including a gap in the four-lane between New London and Paynesville and another gap between Paynesville and Richmond.

“I think we’re making progress and we need to keep up the pressure,” Backman said during a meeting Thursday of the EDC’s operations board.

With 72 percent of the job is done, Backman said renewed efforts need to be made to get the remaining 28 percent finished.

“It’s time to get it done,” he said. “I think we have a reasonable shot.”

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has a plan for the route but there is currently no money earmarked for the construction, which is estimated to cost between $50 million and $70 million.

That’s why Backman wants to kick the Highway 23 coalition into high gear.

“We need to keep the momentum going,” said Backman, who is inviting representatives from the Highway 23 gap communities to a meeting at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at McKale’s restaurant in New London.

In the past, the coalition gatherings have been held in Willmar. Backman said it’s important to engage community partners to increase the voice in the effort.

Backman created a half-page glossy brochure that says Willmar is the largest outstate city without four-lane access and that having a four-lane highway to connect to Interstate 94 will attract and retain businesses and jobs in the region.

West Central Tribune by Carolyn Lange

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