Legislators should focus on their work in St. Paul and let MnDOT engineers do their jobs on two controversial highway projects.
Both the Hwy. 169 upgrade between Tower and Ely, and the planned Hwy. 53 reroute in Virginia are complicated and expensive projects, and it’s important that good decisions are made, and that the appropriate processes are followed to ensure that both projects can be completed in a timely manner.
Legislators who have backed amendments that would mandate certain alternatives may believe they are helping move the process forward, but they are, in reality, simply adding further complication and potential delay to the environmental review process. While the environmental review rules can be cumbersome and time-consuming, they do require a thorough examination of alternatives and the information developed through that process leads to better decision-making in most cases.
And, in either case, federal rules don’t allow legislators to mandate alternatives before the environmental review is completed, or is even underway, as is the case with the Hwy. 53 project.
We certainly don’t support the westerly realignment of Hwy. 53, which would be devastating to the quad cities and to long-established businesses in the area. But we also know that the environmental review— which considers social and economic factors as well as environmental concerns— will eventually eliminate that option precisely because the impact would be so significant.
The westerly reroute was eliminated initially because of that, but with the middle alternative in question due to opposition from Cliffs/United Taconite, MnDOT has put the westerly option back in the mix primarily to meet federal rules. It doesn’t mean MnDOT is going to choose that alternative— they almost certainly will not. But they need to study another alternative to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Legislators should let MnDOT get on with that work.
It’s the same story with Hwy. 169, where legislators recently added amendments to transportation legislation that would require that MnDOT select the southerly realignment. The southerly option ran into opposition from federal highway officials and the Environmental Protection Agency for its high cost and its potential environmental impacts. Yet, some representatives on the Hwy. 169 task force strongly favor the southerly alternative and they’ve urged that MnDOT take another look.
MnDOT officials, just last week, announced that they would re-examine both the southern realignment and the agency’s current plan, which would upgrade the highway largely within the existing alignment. That’s a good decision, one that will ensure that both options get a complete and fair examination. Once we have all the facts, we can make the best decision.
As it stands today, no one can honestly say which alternative is the best one. Cost and safety are two major factors, and right now, they seem to point in opposite directions. If we can save money on the Eagles Nest stretch, will we have sufficient funding to upgrade other portions of the corridor as well? Can the road meet the same safety standards within the existing alignment?
These are all questions that the public will want answered and the best way to provide those answers is to thoroughly vet the alternatives. For legislators to proclaim they have all the answers beforehand is foolish.
It’s also contrary to NEPA rules. While legislators might be able to ignore federal rules on the Hwy. 53 project, which right now appears to be entirely state-funded, that’s hardly an option on Hwy. 169, which is dependent on earmarked federal dollars.
Legislators should butt out. Let MnDOT do its job.