Lots of stimulus money heading to unfinished freewayby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Wondering where the stimulus dollars are going? In Minnesota, the largest chunk of transportation stimulus money is going to build a new 2 1/2 mile segment of freeway 610. Freeway 610 lies outside the Twin Cities beltway of 694/494 serving some northwestern Twin Cities suburbs. It's boosters are cheering the extension. However, some question whether this road in this location is the right use of money.
Maple Grove, Minn. — Freeway 610 is the long awaited roadway its advocates say is essential to continue suburban development in Maple Grove and neighboring communities.
If it's ever finished, the completed 15 mile freeway would link 35W with Interstate 94.
Support for the roadway has grown from the 1960's when Maple Grove was a sleepy little crossroads of 3,000 residents to what it is now, a bustling community of 60,000.
Maple Grove mayor Mark Steffenson says building 610 is essential for development.
"For Brooklyn Park it's where Target is doing their very large expansion project and have very bluntly said that they will not proceed with further expansion there without the completion forward of 610 because they need the road complete so their employees can get to and from work...we need it in Maple Grove so it can service our new hospital opening up in December...." Steffenson says.
The $86 million, if approved, buys 2 1/2 miles of new four-lane 610 freeway and then stops.
The final 2 1/2 mile segment which would connect the freeway with Interstate 94 is not funded. In fact, Minnesota Department of Transportation north area project manager Chris Roy says the final leg is way far back in the waiting line at this point.
"It's not in our long range plan right now so it's many years out," he says.
That is not what Barry King wanted to hear.
King is a Realtor in Maple Grove. He had just finished a chat with MnDOT's Chris Roy at a recent 610 open house in the suburb's city hall. He summed up his reaction after hearing the news that completion of 610 is years away.
"Horrible. Then (I) talked about how important it is to business growth. But even more important is traffic flow, and we've got horrible traffic flow in this area, have for a number of years, and until this gets...well by the time this happens, we're going to need more lanes everywhere," he says.
However more lanes everywhere are neither MnDOT's nor the Metropolitan Council's plan anytime soon. Both agencies say there may be some new lane miles built to relieve congestion at choke points.
But new stretches of freeway outside the 494/694 beltway with the exception of recently completed 212 and 610 are not part of the plan. That's why 610 advocates say the new lanes are a completion not a new expansion project.
Many drivers view 610 as a congestion relieving, time saving blessing.
However other commuters use another option - transit. Downtown Minneapolis is the destination for lots of Maple Grove drivers. The 18 mile trip by car at rush hour is no picnic.
Maple Grove transit director Mike Opatz says the express buses are typically filled to capacity and have notched big ridership increases every year.
"Last, I think, five to six years we had double digit growth in terms of percentage increase from year to year, and that's not normally seen in public transit," he says.
A new piece of suburban freeway doesn't fit with how some believe stimulus transportation money is best used.
State representative Alice Hausman, a St. Paul Democrat, chairs the House Capital Investment Finance Committee and sits on the House transportation committee.
She says overall transportation spending decisions don't mirror growing public interest in buses and trains.
"We're starting to turn that corner but with the spending of the federal stimulus dollars I think we're seeing that it hasn't changed our spending practices at all," she says.
The 610 freeway extension uses up 17% of the state's transportation stimulus money. It's the biggest project.
The project is poised for approval by the powerful Met Council Transportation Advisory Board later this month.
Even its critics admit the extension is an all but done deal. However they're disappointed that scarce stimulus dollars are going to build a new roadway at a time when miles of existing highways need repair and maintenance.