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New county engineer has been down this road before

Jim Olson is settling in quite comfortably as Becker County’s new highway engineer. Though he grew up in the Twin Cities, Olson has roots in the lakes area, having served with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Detroit Lakes for almost five years in the late 1990s/early 2000s. VICKI GERDES/TRIBUNE

Though Jim Olson has only been the head of the Becker County Highway Department since the end of May, he’s no stranger to the lakes area.

The Edina High School graduate and Twin Cities native also lived in Detroit Lakes from 1997-2001, when he was employed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, working out of both the Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls offices on various road construction and maintenance projects.

During that time, he fell in love with the lakes area, and when the job of Becker County highway engineer opened up, he jumped at the chance.

“I’ve been coming up here (to the lakes area) for quite some time,” said Olson, who owns a small hobby farm in Otter Tail County where he now lives full-time.

“I enjoy the outdoor activities like hunting and fishing, and I liked the area from when I previously worked here, and this was a great opportunity,” he said, adding that while it’s still quite a few years down the road, “I might like to retire here someday.”

Not surprisingly for a man who has spent most of his life building roads, Olson also has a passion for antique and classic cars.

“I have an older 1960s model that I enjoy working on,” he said.

Before taking the job with Becker County, Olson spent 9½ years living in the Twin Cities and working as a civil engineer for the city of St. Louis Park’s public works department.

“I managed their construction program,” he said. “I worked on roads, bridges and utility construction.”

Before that, he spent a couple of years working for the City of Richfield as a project engineer. His main project there was building the roads and infrastructure for Best Buy’s new headquarters in Richfield.

Olson had also spent a couple of years working in Richfield’s engineering department as an engineering technician, while he was working toward a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

“I got interested in engineering while I was working in residential construction, before entering college,” Olson said.

Since coming to Detroit Lakes at the beginning of the summer, Olson said he has enjoyed digging into such projects as expanding the county’s road construction and preservation program, and working on plans for a new public works building that would be jointly owned and maintained by the county and the City of Detroit Lakes.

“I stepped into a great job here,” Olson said. “There was a great staff in place, with a lot of experience. That makes my job easier during this transition.

“It’s been a little different learning process, going from city to county government,” he said. “I have a lot more close involvement with the county board and commissioners. I report directly to the board.”

One of the first projects he was given was to review the county’s road construction and maintenance plan, and identify some areas where the county could accelerate its current program “to catch up on our overlays and the preservation of our road system.”

Unfortunately, one of the inherent difficulties with that project is the fact that the State of Minnesota, which funds the construction and maintenance of about 465 miles of the county’s 670-plus miles of paved roads, has not increased to match construction costs.

“Our construction costs have increased dramatically over the years, but the funding hasn’t been able to keep up — more than two-thirds of our roads are funded by the (state) gas tax, which hasn’t gone up enough to match the rise in cost.”

Another project that Olson’s department has been working on, in conjunction with the City of Detroit Lakes’ public works department, is the construction of a new building to house both departments.

“We’re starting the initial needs study right now,” he said. “It’s in the ‘pre-design’ stage.

“We’re ready to go out and solicit architects to do the preliminary cost estimates,” Olson added, noting that the call for bids should be going out “in a week or two.”

“The goal is, we want to start construction by the spring of 2015.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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