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Corridors of Commerce: Highway 371 between Nisswa and Jenkins to get wider sooner

Highway 371, between Nisswa and Jenkins, will get wider sooner. That was the upshot of Gov. Mark Dayton's Tuesday news conference in St. Paul, when he announced the expansion to four-lanes on Highway 371 between the two cities will be moved up tw...

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The expansion to four-lanes on Highway 371 between Nisswa and Jenkins will be starting in 2016, two years earlier than originally planned. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

Highway 371, between Nisswa and Jenkins, will get wider sooner.

That was the upshot of Gov. Mark Dayton's Tuesday news conference in St. Paul, when he announced the expansion to four-lanes on Highway 371 between the two cities will be moved up two years, now starting in 2016.

The acceleration in transportation funding for 13 projects was the result of an investment in a Corridors of Commerce initiative and costs savings realized through the state's bidding process.

Kevin Gutknecht, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) director of communications, said bids came in lower than anticipated on some projects, allowing money to be shifted to the Highway 371 project.

The MnDOT news release said 12 of the Corridors of Commerce projects would be paid for with existing funding which Dayton and the Legislature invested into the initiative in 2014.

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"The 13th project - $45 million devoted to a $58 million expansion to four lanes on Highway 371 from Nisswa to Jenkins - was made possible by cost savings at MnDOT. Funding for this project was provided through bid savings on the extension of Highway 610 and other MnDOT efficiencies in the Corridors of Commerce program. MnDOT will begin construction on the project in 2016, two years earlier than planned.

Gutknecht said many of the roadways in the Corridors of Commerce carry considerable amounts of freight. The Highway 371 segment, he said, carries a lot of tourism traffic.

"Plus, it's a connection between Brainerd and points north," Gutknecht said.

He also noted that two-lane traffic on a busy stretch of highway, without the separation of traffic that occurs with four lanes, is "clearly much more dangerous" than four lanes of traffic.

The accelerated schedule of the project, which is tied in with plans for the once-controversial Highway 371 bypass around Pequot Lakes, was treated as welcome news by Mark Jurchen, chair of the Pequot Lakes Economic Development Committee.

"It's been something that's been a major issue in our community for a number of years,"Jurchen said.

The bypass of Highway 371 around Pequot Lakes will swing the traffic toward the east near Timberjack Smokehouse and Saloon, through the city's irrigation fields, east of the business park and near the old DNR fire tower. The bypass route will rejoin the existing Highway 371 corridor near Jenkins.

Jurchen said that traffic has increased considerably in the Pequot Lakes area with big employers such as the Pequot Lakes School District, TDS Telecom and Landis Gyr.

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"We're finding more and more with a number of people moving into the area, we do have a rush hour in the morning and in the evenings.

The bypass, Jurchen said should help in-city traffic flow more smoothly. He said he couldn't recall the the exact numbers but he believed that about 60 to 70 percent of the highway traffic was through traffic that wasn't stopping in Pequot Lakes.

"We're really looking forward to having this completed,"Jurchen said. "It's taken a lot of planning and for many, many years we've been in limbo."

The Pine and Lakes Echo Journal this week quoted Jim Hallgren, MnDOT District 3 project manager in charge of the project, saying that one emerging issue is that the long-eared bat may be listed as a threatened or endangered species. Those bats inhabit forested areas and many trees will be cut down for this project.

"We have to do more work in a shorter time frame on our end," Hallgren told the Echo Journal. "We think it's still possible and we're pursuing that."

Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, and Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, both voted for the Corridors for Commerce program, and were pleased with Tuesday's announcement.

"This is fantastic news for our area," said Rep. Ward in a statement. "This is a vital highway for our economy that has seen a lot of congestion. Expanding it to four lanes will reduce that congestion and help our economy over the long term. And thanks to MnDOT's efficiencies and cost savings, construction will start two years earlier than planned. I want to thank Gov. Dayton and (MnDOT) Commissioner (Charlie) Zelle for their great work on this program."

"Highway 371 is a critical piece of our area's economic engine, making this a very welcome expansion," Rep. Radinovich said in the news release. "This expansion will make travel easier for Minnesotans, boosting our economy, while also improving the safety of Highway 371."

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MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews .

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