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Highway 34 set for upgrade

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle announces Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, that the state will spend $300 million in the next three years on 10 road projects that had not been planned. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis

Highway 34 from Detroit Lakes to Nevis will see the addition of more passing lanes as part of a Dayton administration plan to improve 10 highways around the state.

The Highway 34 project will cost from $11 million to $15 million and is slated to start next year.

More passing lanes will help keep traffic moving at a reasonable speed, especially in the summertime when Highway 34 is much busier, said Nancy Grabanski, the Human Resources director for Becker County, who commutes on Highway 34 regularly.

The state has already added a few such passing lanes on Highway 34 as part of highway upgrades in the past few years, and they made a noticeable difference, she said.

While it’s unusual to be stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on Highway 34, it does happen sometimes, she added.

And while regular commuters know the route well, unfamiliar motorists are at a disadvantage on the hilly, curvy scenic highway.

“For some people who aren’t used to that stretch of road, it might be a little more frustrating,” Grabanski said.

“They don’t know when to pass.”

The Highway 34 project doesn’t specify how many passing lanes will be built. It’s part of an unusual highway improvement plan called Corridors of Commerce.

Pushed by Gov. Mark Dayton, the idea is to construct 10 highway projects around Minnesota to improve commerce transportation.

The projects are not part of the state’s 20-year transportation plan, but Dayton said Thursday that the projects will show Minnesotans what can be done if transportation revenue is increased.

“It will give Minne-sotans an indication of what’s possible with increased funding,” he said of the $300 million program.

Other projects funded through the program over the next three years include adding three passing lanes on a 38-mile stretch between Cass Lake and Deer River (on Highway 2 between Bemidji and Duluth). It will cost $8 million to $10 million and start next year.

The only other project planned in the northern half of the state is Highway 169 in Itasca County, which will expand from two to four lanes between county roads 15 and 7.

It’s a key freight route for the Mesabi iron ore industry, and improves the connection from Highway 53 (Virginia) to Highway 2 (Grand Rapids). It will cost $14 million to $20 million and start in 2016.

While just two of the eight projects are in the Twin Cities, transportation officials say money spent will be about even between the metropolitan area and greater Minnesota.

The most expensive metro area project is the construction of a new freeway, called Highway 610, which will connect Hennepin County Road                81 to      I-94 and will accommodate 50,000 vehicles per day.

It will take some of the demand off I-94 and I-694, and connect with the future Bottineau LRT Transit hub. The cost will be from $103 million to $131 million. The project starts next year.

The other metro project will create a “dynamic shoulder lane” on Highway 10 from Rice to Lexington. It will allow motorists to drive on the shoulder lane during periods of congestion.

When there is less traffic, it reverts to a shoulder. The cost is $35 million to $42 million and the project will start in 2015.

Dayton and Trans-portation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said that unless something changes, the state will fall $10 billion short of what is needed just to keep state highways at today’s levels.

Most state highway funds go to preserving existing roads, not expanding them.

The governor said the Corridors of Commerce program will serve as an example of what is possible.

Dayton plans to give legislators a proposal to increase transportation funding next year, but on Thursday said he does not know how it will look. He said the gasoline tax, even if raised, would not provide needed money.

He said that he did not know if he can garner the needed support next year, during a legislative session he wants to be the “unsession,” dedicated to overturning unneeded laws and other items that have little budget impact.

“This is a down payment,” Zelle said of Corridors of Commerce. “It is not nearly enough … It is essentially to add capacity … and help freight movement.”

(St. Paul bureau chief Don Davis contributed to this story)