Minnesota's biggest stimulus project proves controversialby 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 two-and-half mile segment of Freeway 610.
Freeway 610 lies outside the Twin Cities beltway of 694 and 494 and serves some northwestern Twin Cities suburbs. Freeway 610 boosters are cheering. 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 1960s, when Maple Grove was a sleepy little crossroads of 3,000 to now when it is a bustling community of 60,000.
Maple Grove Mayor Mark Steffenson said the city needs the project for a variety reasons.
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 they're employees can get to and from work," said Steefeson. "We need it in Maple Grove, so it can service our new hospital opening up in December."
The $86 million, if approved, buys two-and-half miles of new four lane 610 freeway, and then stops.
The last two-and-half 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 back in the que at this point.
"It's not in our long range plan right now, so it's many years out," said Roy.
That is not what Barry King wanted to hear. He is a realtor in Maple Grove.
King 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, if then.
"Horrible. Then 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," said King. "Well, by the time this happens, we're going to need more lanes everywhere."
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.
However, new stretches of freeway outside the 494 and 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 eighteen 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." said Opatz.
A new piece of suburban freeway doesn't fit with how some believe stimulus transportation money is best used.
State Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul), who chairs the House Capital Investment Finance Committee and sits on the House transportation committee, 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," said Hausman.
The 610 freeway extension uses up 17 percent 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 scare stimulus dollars are going to build a new roadway at a time when miles of existing highways need repair and maintenance.
- Morning Edition, 04/01/2009, 7:40 a.m.