MnDOT collects criticism about Minnesota 60One by one they walked to the microphone, sat down and shared their death-defying experiences on a stretch of Minnesota 60 that not once, not twice, but three times changes from two-lane to four-lane traffic between Windom and St. James.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
One by one they walked to the microphone, sat down and shared their death-defying experiences on a stretch of Minnesota 60 that not once, not twice, but three times changes from two-lane to four-lane traffic between Windom and St. James.
From an aunt, friend and cousin who shared their stories of 28-year-old Jamie Torkelson, killed in a head-on collision on the highway on May 6, 2005, to retired school bus drivers, business people, truck drivers and city and county leaders — they pleaded with newly-appointed transportation commissioner Thomas Sorel and MnDOT officials to find the money to complete the four-lane expansion.
Sorel, along with MnDOT District 7 engineer James Swanson and MnDOT division director of mobile planning and program management Tim Henkel, faced Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mt. Lake, and Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, along with a crowd of 380 people who gathered in the Windom Community Center Thursday evening to voice their displeasure in the lack of scheduling a completion date for approximately 20 miles of two-lane highway northeast of Windom.
There is $100 million set aside for the completion of the Minnesota 60 four-lane from Bigelow to Worthington, with construction slated to begin in 2010.
“We just want to express our opinion, our frustration, of what’s not been done for 34 years,” Vickerman told the officials with MnDOT. “Our understanding was Highway 60 was in the bill, it would get done and it would not be piece-mealed over the next 25 years.”
Hamilton, who urged for people to remain calm as they presented their opinions, said Minnesota 60 was scheduled to be completed in 1973.
“Had it been built back then, it would have been done, it would have been paid for and it would have saved lives,” Hamilton said.
Sorel said the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was to collect feedback.
“We do understand why you as a community are concerned about this roadway,” he added.
Yet, a large part of the transportation bill is focused on Interstate and U.S. Highway bridges in the state — which will get about 75 percent of the funding.
“We want just as much credit, emphasis and respect on Highway 60 as on the bridges,” Hamilton said, adding that the highway’s completion will increase safety and add to the economic stimulus of southwest Minnesota.
Swanson estimated the three segments from Windom to St. James that have yet to be completed could cost about $60 million — money that several people in the audience said would be well worth the lives that could be saved.
Sorel and MnDOT took criticism not only for the delays, but in the decision to put $23 million of highway funds into the construction of a new building in Mankato to house snow plows for the state agency.
“Why in the world didn’t we put that in the bonding bill?” asked Vickerman, adding that the highway funds should have been used for just that — highways.
More than 25 people gave testimony during an open mic segment of the 2.5-hour-long meeting. Among them was Randy Wilson of Mountain Lake, who introduced himself as one of the statistics.
“I was crushed on that highway,” Wilson said as he looked straight at Sorel. “I only have half a life today.”
As he listed off injuries he survived, including a partially crushed aorta, Wilson asked, “Are you going to give us this highway? They’ve given you the money. Are you going to listen?”
Stephen Schnieder, Nobles County director of public works and president of the Southwest Minnesota Highway 60 Action Corp., said the group formed in 1960 to promote the highway’s improvement and expansion.
“Our slogan is, ‘Pray for me, I drive Highway 60,’” Schnieder told the MnDOT panel. He encouraged them to find the funds to complete the three segments that have yet to be put in the district’s plans.
Others referred to the stretch of road from Windom to St. James as Death Trap Alley, saying the continual switching from two-lane to four-lane creates confusion and results in crashes that could have been prevented.
“Continuing this project will save lives,” said Phyllis Lindemann of Windom, an aunt of Jamie Torkelson. “We need a start date and a completion date.”
Lindemann talked of the memorial erected in her nephew’s honor along Minnesota 60, and the memorial ride they conduct each summer to raise money in memory of Torkelson for the Windom hockey program.
Lastly, she encouraged the MnDOT officials, as they headed home Thursday night, to look at the Adopt-A-Highway sign that contains Torkelson’s name, and imagine if that were the name of their son or daughter.
“And how soon would you want to finish that road?” she asked them.
Representatives from both the Cottonwood County Sheriff’s Department and area fire departments talked about responding to fatal and serious car crashes on Minnesota 60.
“I have responded to numerous accidents,” said a member of the Butterfield Fire Department, adding that four of them were fatalities.
Tom White, a Cottonwood County Commissioner, presented Sorel with a resolution requesting the completion of Minnesota 60, saying it was the 30th or 32nd time the board of commissioners has passed such a resolution.
Several members from the public talked about close calls and near misses they had while driving Minnesota 60 northeast of Windom, and all had the same message for MnDOT — finish the road.
Hillary Mathis, a cousin of Jamie Torkelson, was the last of the scheduled members from the public to speak.
As she sat at the microphone, she turned, motioned to the audience and said, “I simply cannot believe that it takes this much effort to try to get the point across that this highway must be completed.
“It is so hard to sit here and speak and not be mad, confused, frustrated and wanting to blame someone for the countless deaths on this road,” Mathis said. “There is no reason this highway should not be finished.”
As part of her address, Mathis presented Sorel with a petition of more than 3,200 signatures requesting the road be completed.
After all of the public testimony was presented, Sorel said he would be meeting with legislators and MnDOT to work on a plan. He made no promises.
Vickerman and Hamilton each offered parting comments, reiterating the need to fund the final portion of the Minnesota 60 expansion project.
“The people have spoken and I thank you for that,” Hamilton said. “It’s time to do the right thing and build a damn highway.”