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Projects in Minnesota and Wisconsin Win Regional America’s Transportation Awards

by: Jessica Hoover
Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Design-Build Project
Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Design-Build Project
Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Design-Build Project
Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Design-Build Project
US 12/18 Flex Lane
US 12/18 Flex Lane
US 12/18 Flex Lane
US 12/18 Flex Lane
Tribal Employment Rights and On-the-Job Training Partnership
Tribal Employment Rights and On-the-Job Training Partnership
Tribal Employment Rights and On-the-Job Training Partnership
Tribal Employment Rights and On-the-Job Training Partnership
Three state department of transportation (DOT) projects in Minnesota and Wisconsin won regional awards in the 2023 America’s Transportation Awards competition, created by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), AAA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The competition recognizes DOTs for making a difference in their community, with each project falling into one of three categories: Quality of Life/Community Development, Operations Excellence, and Best Use of Technology & Innovation.

“In addressing the transportation challenges of today and tomorrow, state DOTs demonstrate a strong determination to bring innovative solutions to their communities,” said Jim Tymon, Executive Director of AASHTO. “The America’s Transportation Awards program serves as a testament to their endeavors, and I am excited to kick off the regional awards with MAASTO’s pioneering projects. These projects play a vital role in improving safety, enhancing mobility, and revitalizing transportation resources for drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit customers alike.”

Twenty-three projects in the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials (MAASTO) region were nominated by DOTs for this year’s competition. The following three projects in the Western Builder area were winners of regional America’s Transportation Awards.

Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Design-Build Project (Quality of Life/Community Development, Medium Category)
The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Project, costing $50 million, enhances transportation efficiency and economic growth for the city of Willmar. The project establishes a direct 2.5-mile rail connection between the Marshall and Morris Subdivisions of the BNSF rail network on the western edge of Willmar. The rail connection eliminates the necessity for 7 to 10 daily trains to enter the downtown Willmar rail yard, ensuring a reduction in train movement through residential areas and facilitating smoother freight transportation throughout the area.

Other components of the project include the incorporation of a rail spur that grants access to Willmar's industrial park, the realignment of U.S. 12 across a 1.5-mile stretch, and the reconstruction of 0.75 miles of MN Highway 40, as well as the construction of two new bridges.

Prior to this project, trains needed to reverse direction in the Willmar yard when traveling between Fargo, North Dakota, and Kansas City, Missouri, which led to traffic congestion, blocked crossings, and excess emissions and noise. The community was also concerned with safety at vehicle, pedestrian, and school bus crossings, as well as the responsiveness of fire, ambulance, police, and other emergency services.

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Since the completion of the Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Project, MnDOT has seen the following benefits: reduced congestion at railroad intersections, enhanced safety measures, minimized delays, improved air quality, reduced noise pollution, and lowered greenhouse gas emissions. The project's culmination also established a multi-modal shipping hub and incorporated a foundation for economic growth in Willmar, promoting business expansion and increasing job opportunities in the region.

US 12/18 Flex Lane (Operations Excellence, Medium Category)
Since opening in July 2022, Wisconsin's first Flex Lane has earned acclaim from local, state, and now national organizations as an innovative approach for maintaining efficient traffic flow along one of the state's critical urban highways. Located on the Madison Beltline (US 12/18) between Whitney Way and the I-39/90 interchange in Dane County, the Flex Lane utilizes the inside median shoulders of the highway as an additional travel lane during peak traffic periods, primarily during weekday morning and afternoon rush hours.

“We are proud to accept this award and continually showcase the success of the Flex Lane and improved traffic flow on one of the busiest highways in Madison,” Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson said. “This award serves as a reminder of our agency’s commitment to improving our transportation system to enhance safety and mobility for Wisconsinites and visitors. I am grateful to the WisDOT staff and our consultant partners who helped deliver — and continue to operate — the Flex Lane.”

The $73 million US 12/18 Flex Lane project has significantly decreased travel times during peak Beltline hours — up to a 45% reduction. Carrying over 120,000 vehicles daily along a 10-mile stretch, the Flex Lane functions dynamically, opening and closing based on traffic volumes. This system allows for increased capacity without expanding the highway's footprint. Preliminary analysis of crash data indicates a drop of more than 20% in total accidents along the Beltline over the first year of Flex Lane operations, compared to conditions before the pandemic.

“The Flex Lane continues to shine as an effective way to lessen traffic backups on the Madison Beltline. I want to commend the Wisconsin DOT on this award,” said Jason M. Fields, CFEI, CCRS, Madison Region Economic Partnership President and CEO. “A reliable infrastructure network is an important part of successful economic growth, especially in the greater Madison area. The Flex Lane builds on that dependability, and people and commerce can better rely on the Beltline now.”

Tribal Employment Rights and On-the-Job Training Partnership (Best Use of Technology & Innovation, Small Category)
Despite the national unemployment rate reaching historic lows, Indian reservations continue to grapple with exceedingly high levels of unemployment, averaging between 25% and 30% depending on the location. In an effort to address this disparity, MnDOT launched a pilot program across two $21 million road resurfacing projects situated on reservations.

The initiative provided training and employment to 10 individuals from the reservations. These participants received training in various construction skills, including flagging, heavy equipment operation, and commercial vehicle handling. By focusing on equitable employment opportunities, MnDOT's program not only addresses the pressing issue of high unemployment within tribal communities but also contributes to bolstering the local road construction workforce.

Next Phase of the Competition
The three highest-scoring projects from each regional America’s Transportation Awards competition (a total of 12 projects) will continue on to compete for two national awards, the Grand Prize and the People’s Choice Award. In November, AASHTO will reveal the winners at its annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The Top 12 projects in alphabetical order by state are:

  • Florida Department of Transportation’s Hurricane Ian Sanibel Island Emergency Access
  • Georgia Department of Transportation’s Historic 5th Street Pedestrian Bridge Rehabilitation Project
  • Illinois Department of Transportation’s Jane Byrne Interchange
  • Iowa Department of Transportation’s Adult Changing Facilities in Iowa Rest Areas
  • Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Mayfield Tornado Response
  • Maine Department of Transportation’s The Veranda Plan
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Flood Warning System
  • Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Emergency Fern Hollow Bridge Replacement Project
  • South Dakota Department of Transportation’s U.S. Highway 83 Corridor Improvements and Reconstruction
  • Texas Department of Transportation’s Mobility35 Initiative to Address Homelessness Program
  • Utah Department of Transportation’s Teamed-Up for Transit: UDOT and UTA Partner to Improve Mobility for Local Community
  • Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Lamoille Valley Rail Trail
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