“It’s charting a new route for the highway through what had been farm fields,” says Michael Dougherty, Spokesman for MnDOT. “It’s relatively rare to be building a new road through land that has not had one.”
MnDOT had increased capacity on sections of Highway 14 over the years. Shafer Contracting of Shafer, Minnesota, performed work on those earlier widening projects and is now the design-builder for the new alignment.
“The Shafer company has worked on a number of projects along the corridor, starting back in the 1990s,” says Greg Pelkey, Concrete Engineer and Vice President of Shafer. “It’s exciting to be working on the last expansion.”
After the prior projects, a 12.5-mile stretch remained two-lanes as funding for a new road remained allusive. That change from four lanes to two lanes and back to four lanes resulted in a series of serious crashes as people attempted to merge or pass slower traffic, Dougherty says. The current Highway 14 has an at-grade Canadian Pacific Railroad crossing and several local road crossings, all of which will be eliminated with the new highway.
“It’s improving connectivity and safety on the main road and avoiding the risk of crashes with trains,” Dougherty adds. “For people who live along that corridor, the safety aspect has been a concern.”
Consequently, the department completed as much preliminary work as possible, so if funds became available, it could move quickly on this project. A federal environmental impact study was developed in 2010 and compared a new alignment vs. alternatives, with the new road the preferred choice.
About 8,800 vehicles drive on Highway 14 daily, a number expected to increase in the years ahead. The new route required the department to purchase 84 partial parcels and 12 total parcels.
The department had been focusing its funds on preserving assets rather than building new roads and bridges. In 2013, the legislature passed the Corridors of Commerce funding, which authorized the sale of up to $300 million in trunk highway bonds for projects not already in the State Transportation Improvement Program.
The goal was to increase highway capacity where bottlenecks existed, improve freight movement, and decrease barriers to commerce. The state sought input from the public and scored potential projects. “The freight folks have been looking for a better route,” Dougherty says.
The Highway 14 Owatonna to Dodge Center project was selected for funding. Once complete, this project will provide a continuous four-lane highway between Mankato and Rochester. The new highway will connect with Interstate 35, a major north-south route for freight and tourists and provide better access to new distribution centers and other commercial entities in Owatonna.
“Having the four-lane connection complete from Mankato to Rochester creates an ability for additional trucks and traffic for economic development,” says Tory Thompson, the MnDOT Project Manager for this construction project.
It also includes several bridges over the four-lane highway but no ramps. The two overpass bridges are at Steele County State Aid Highway 16 and Dodge County State Aid Highway 1/West Street.
“The interchanges are utilizing roundabouts for intersection control at the top of the ramps to decrease points of conflict and keep the movement moving more freely off the ramps,” Thompson says. “It’s more of a safety feature.”
The project includes an extensive number of drainage structures, she says.
“Because of the new alignment, we need new culverts everywhere to maintain the existing drainage pattern,” Thompson adds. “To ensure we are not impacting people negatively is very important.”
The stormwater will flow to Dodge Center Creek watershed. That work requires construction of two larger, 8-foot by 10-foot concrete box culverts.
The project also includes construction frontage roads to provide access to local properties, so farmers remain connected to their fields and homes. The new road will parallel the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks for the majority of the corridor and then cross the railroad at Highway 56.
“Design-build was selected for this project due to the timing of funding, when we needed to spend the money,” Thompson says. “The other part of it is large grading projects can have a lot of quantity risk in them. We chose to transfer the quantity risk to the contractor who can better handle and address those risks.”
Construction commenced in January 2020 with demolition of 15 buildings and tree clearing. Some work continued during the winter.
Because this is a new alignment, traffic continues to flow on the existing Highway 14. Some county roads under Highway 14 have been closed.
Subcontractor Ames Construction of Burnsville is performing the earth work, bridges and underground work. Shafer is managing the job, adding a gavel base and paving with concrete.
The Shafer team has strived to balance the earthwork, removing soils from retention ponds, for instance, and adding that soil to low-lying areas.
“It’s been a struggle, since the site is rather flat,” Pelkey says.
Most of the soils are wet clay, which required the contractor to spread and dry it out by wind and sun until the soil was solid and could be compacted and suitable for the roadbed.
“As you build up the road core, you dry it in lifts,” Pelkey explains. “For the most part, they are good clays that compress well and will make a solid road core.
Water management also has presented challenges during construction. Several ditches cross the project. Drain tiles from the former farms, except for the mains, needed to be realigned. Ellingson of West Concord, Minnesota, moved the tiles through the corridor.
The Shafer team uses GPS-equipped machinery for grading. The new road will be paved with concrete. One of the concrete-girder bridges cross the new highway and the railroad and another has separate spans for the highway and railroad tracks.
MnDOT expects to switch traffic to the new road later this year, and complete the project in 2022. At that time, the existing Highway 14 will become a local road. Until then, MnDOT and the design-build team are working closely toward project completion.
“The successful and safe completion of this project is a goal shared by everyone involved,” Dougherty says. “It’s going to connect and meet a lot of people’s transportation needs, and they are looking forward to be on this route.”
Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation