How to Blow $20,000,000 on 1,100 People

We need roads. We need good roads that are built with a purpose and have a high return on investment. Roads that have purpose and efficiently connect productive places.

The road I’m talking about though, doesn’t really fit the above criteria.

MNDOT recently announced that it will be spending roughly 20 million to fix up Highway 66 which connects Good Thunder with Mankato.

Now I’m no economist, but Good Thunder isn’t exactly a burgeoning center of local commerce. The residency as of the 2010 census stood at 583 people. Yes, 583, as in less than 600. As in I have enough money to give everyone in that city a dollar–scratch that–THREE DOLLARS.

Why spend $20 million on improving a route to a city that small? Great question, reader, here’s the answer:

THERE IS NONE.

Let me alleviate your rage about such an egregious abuse of transportation funds.

The AADT (Average Annual Daily Traffic) for this road is 1,100 cars. Roughly double the residency of Good Thunder or essentially every citizen coming to and from Mankato every day. If you want, think about it as $20,000 per car. Oh, did I mention that the road is about 12 miles long? So yet another way of thinking about it is roughly $1.6m a mile.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 3.27.10 PM source: MNDOT traffic app

I don’t want this post to come off as a slam against Good Thunder or make it seem like I don’t care about the residents there. I think that improving highway 66 is a great idea, but not the degree they have in mind. This Free Press article is a good summary of why they want to upgrade the road and what it will be upgraded to.

Again, I agree, it can be dangerous in winter, it needs improvement, but $20m is an absurd amount to spend on such a low returning road. A measured and calculated amount should be spent to make the road smoother and safer.

The kicker here is that after MNDOT is done making these improvements, they’re going to turn it over to the county to take care of. Yikes, rotten deal for Blue Earth. We now get to manage it for the rest of its life.

While the price might seem high, the road is an important one to the county, Forsberg said. Combined with County Road 1, which extends south from Good Thunder, Highway 66 is the main north-south route in central Blue Earth County, midway between Highway 169 on the west and Highway 22 on the east.-Mankato Free Press

MNDOT and the county both have the traffic counts for that road. They say it’s a “main route” ergo it’s “important.” In other news, we’re building a staircase from Cape Canaveral, FL to the Moon because it’s a “main route” and “important.” A lot of things are main connections, but the question is how important are these routes and do they have a quality return for their investment.

It would actually be cheaper to spend 10 million on the road and then just PAY those 1,100 cars 5k a year to take a different route (only for one year, but you get the idea).

Furthermore, a lot of people don’t even want the road to change to the degree the state has in mind. The state wants to widen it, make it straighter and design it for higher speeds. When they told this to the county, most of the residents along the road said “screw that!”

The thing about highway 66 right now is that it’s really nice. It’s curvy, slow, and very scenic. All this designing would ruin what is already nice drive. Currently it’s designed as a road that handles, oh I don’t know, 1,100 cars a day. Why transform it to something it’s not? Because it doesn’t meet “THE STANDARD,” a supposititious guideline on how to build roads way to big.

This article is somewhat rant-y and I apologize for that. If I could summarize what I’m trying to say it’s Return on Investment. We have a problem in this country of upgrading, fixing or building infrastructure even if it’s ROI is little or nothing. We then have to maintain this infrastructure which has huge financial implications on our city, state and national budgets.

We need to think about retiring, removing, downgrading or heck just modestly improving infrastructure in this country.

This, however, is an example of more of the same.

This article appeared on my site Key City and is a repost to streets.mn

Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

17 Responses to How to Blow $20,000,000 on 1,100 People

  1. Scott Shaffer
    Scott Shaffer July 10, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    Good post! Any idea how much the upkeep is going to cost Blue Earth County? I grew up in New Ulm and Fairmont.

    Now, I live in Minneapolis and there are 678 people who live on my block and the three blocks next to it.

    I speak on behalf on my neighbors when I say:

    Dear MnDOT, we will accept payment in the amount of $20,000,000 in cash or via PayPal.

    Thank you.

    • Matthias Leyrer
      Matthias Leyrer July 10, 2014 at 10:52 am #

      I think the upkeep will vary depending on a lot of things. Highway 66 was a DISASTER after the rains down here. There were parts of the road washed out, inundated with mud, etc…

      I also will take the money. Think about all the place making you could do with that much.

  2. Mike Beck July 10, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    I wholeheartedly disagree.

    I grew up outside a town similar to Good Thunder in eastern Iowa. My entire family still lives, and earn their livings, along a highway similar to Hwy 66. The difference is that their highway, formerly a state highway, was downgraded BEFORE critical improvements were made. It now sits crumbling from use, jeopardizing local commerce.

    Google Maps clearly shows a vibrant small town, anchored by a grain elevator. Remnants of a long-gone railroad can be seen. There are other businesses, at least one church, an elementary school of a now combined larger district. Scanning out reveals the true need for a safe highway: farmland. Despite the seemingly small population, Highway 66 appears to be the only main connection to the nearest commerce hub of Mankato.

    I can only imagine the vast number of farm implements that utilize this route, whether long or short hauling. Large tractors and harvesting equipment require adequate access to be able to properly farm the surrounding land. This is the livelihood of many more people that just the listed population of the town proper.

    This past harvest, my father, a farmer, had several gravity wagon tires blow because of the poor condition of his highway. They are not cheap. Very expensive, actually. Then there is the wear and tear on their trucks and personal vehicles, many with shot suspensions because the county delayed improving the highway given to them by the state.

    Yes, $20 million is a lot of money. But with that investment, a safer, stronger highway can be built to continue offering local residents and area farmers the means to continue their livelihood. Without that highway, fewer goods will be delivered, fewer homes will be occupied, and another rural community is left to be forgotten.

    When I see $50 million being invested to “improve” Nicollet Mall, a whopping mile in length, without even addressing the real problems of our urban main street, I champion a much smaller investment that will greatly improve a critical 12 miles that will support a vibrant rural community that works tirelessly to provide for the rest of us.

    • Matthias Leyrer
      Matthias Leyrer July 10, 2014 at 11:01 am #

      Hey thanks for your alternative point of view! I’m glad I’ve found someone with an articulate point of view that’s in favor.

      Like I said in the article, I think it needs to be improved as well, but the tune of 20 million doesn’t seem worth it to me. Especially as farms are getting bigger and bigger, you’ll see less and less traffic on the road from an efficiency standpoint.

      Your comment is also indicative of a bigger problem. If we didn’t have so many roads to upkeep, we could keep the roads that we do have from getting to the point where it’s damaging people’s cars.

      And I am right there with you on Nicollet Mall. Way too much money.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller July 10, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

      I see you arguing why a highway like 66 needs to be maintained and not allowed to run down. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.

      But nothing you said makes this road carry more than 1,100 vehicles a day. Why isn’t maintaining the existing roadway and fixing any problem spots enough?

  3. Monte Castleman
    Monte July 10, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    I’ll strongly disagree also. The food that city dwellers eat doesn’t arrive on the light rail train, it comes on local rural roads like this one. It’s to everyone’s benefit to eliminate deadly curves and vehicle destroying-potholes. If you eliminate this road that traffic will shift to the next one, wearing that one out that much sooner. Despite this such farm to market roads don’t have much of a statewide importance by themselves compared to I-94, so are better managed at a local level. MN 66 was one of a bunch of “dead-end” “pork barrel” routes that the Minnesota Department of Highways was forced against their will to take over 1949. Iowas had a similar situation and just reversed it a few years ago, transferring the roads to the counties without compensation. Mn/DOT is slowly trying to reverse it too, (at the rate of 1 or two a year) but they need to provide a carrot to the counties. Once the transfer is complete people in Thief River Falls or Minneapolis won’t have to pay to plow the road to Good Thunder.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele July 10, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      Not sure how significantly higher future replacement/maintenance liabilities are a “carrot” to the county. They should just repave the road as is and turn it back.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte July 10, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

        A complete reconstruction would mean lower future costs than cheap resurfacing or pavement replacement. Looks like they’re talking about mainly gravel shoulders, so straightening curves and improving sightlines isn’t going to cost more in the future. According to the linked article they’re also trying to give it a Natural Preservation Route to get an exception from state design standards in the narrow, curvy section.

        I’m also a bit surprised that people don’t think Good Thunder (pop 587) needs a bicycle trail or paved shoulders since they think Steen (pop 177) needs one.

        • Matt Steele
          Matt Steele July 10, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

          Rapidan is connected to Mankato by the Red Jacket State Trail, paralleling the windy/scenic portion of Hwy 66. If we saved some money on this needless highway “improvement,” some of that money could be spent instead on extending the trail from Rapidan to Good Thunder either on the old railroad ROW (which is now farm fields) or along Hwy 66.

          Luckily people are starting to stand up to transportation engineers peddling unnecessary “improvements” that would devalue the places roads are intended to serve. Here’s an example from Crow Wing County: http://www.brainerddispatch.com/content/future-ojibwa-and-nashway-roads-gets-public-feedback

          And if anyone reading this forgets why not to give blind faith to the transportation planning profession which so often peddles deadly design, here’s a classic video posted on StreetsMN: https://streets.mn/2014/06/14/conversations-with-an-engineer/

  4. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele July 10, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    This is total truth. And people need to separate out pavement quality from “needed” design changes that aren’t needed.

  5. Bev July 10, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    I disagree and I am a inner-city Minneapolis dweller, recreational/commuter cyclist, and public transit user/fan/advocate.

    Roads cost money, and they are expensive. They are also necessary. That’s just the way it goes. You can’t make them any cheaper. Either a road rots and becomes a mess or you fix it, and fixing it costs money. $1.6M / mile doesn’t sound unreasonable in the grand scheme of road construction. It sucks they need to update 12 miles and that makes the total $20M, but I don’t think there is much they can do.

    Also, to put the cost in perspective:
    Southwest LRT – 15.8miles: $1.68B, estimated daily users: 33,213. Cost per daily user: $50,583
    This road – 12 miles: $20M, estimated daily users: 1,100. Cost per daily user: $18,182

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele July 10, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

      Roads are necessary. But we need roads that are context sensitive and designed to support adjacent land uses. Too often we build roads that are claimed to be “good roads” because they meet a standard, but they are insanely expensive, out of context, and destructive of the character of adjacent land uses.

  6. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg July 10, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    To Bev’s point, there are many possible ways to measure this, like potential new property taxes collected from housing units built as a result of these improvements.

    If 1,000 new housing units are developed at each of 16 SWLRT stations (16,000 units), at a value of $150,000 per unit, annual tax collections at $1,087.50 per unit results in $97 per unit when divided by the entire $1.68 billion cost.

    If Good Thunder were to grow by a robust 100 new households (for the sake of argument, same unit value and tax revenue), a significant amount of growth), it comes out to $184 per unit.

    From this calculation, SWLRT is twice as good an investment. However, I don’t think Bev nor I have proved anything by one calculation alone. The larger point is it is important to ask a variety of questions about why any road or transit improvement needs to be made, along with a variety of calculations weighing how these costs are paid for, albeit indirectly.

  7. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins July 11, 2014 at 11:36 am #

    This doesn’t sound like an extravagant design, though I haven’t seen exactly what is proposed in terms of “straightening”. It sounds like they are proposing a paved width of 26′ (1|12|12|1). My local, residential street in minneapolis is about 30′.

  8. Froggie July 11, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    Matthias posted this on his own blog 2 weeks ago, so I’m going to repeat the same thing I posed then:

    MnDOT has been wanting to turn back Highway 66 for years. But the county won’t take it until it gets rebuilt.

    This, plus the flood damage mentioned by Matthias himself, is why a simple resurfacing (which Matt advocates) won’t be enough…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Misplaced Priorities: Spending $20 Million for 1,200 Drivers | Streetsblog.net - July 14, 2014

    […] a great example from the Minneapolis area, via Matthias Leyrer at Network blog Streets.mn. Minnesota DOT is gearing up to pour $20 million into a state highway so the road will have 12-foot […]

  2. Follow Up: How to Blow $20,000,00 on 1,100 People | streets.mn - July 24, 2014

    […] 15 minutes of internet fame when my post hit the front page of Streetsblog (which was here on streets.mn first), I was quickly shaken from my pedestal by pro-roaders, one of whom accused me of doing […]

Note on Comments

streets.mn welcomes opinions from many perspectives. Please refrain from attacking or disparaging others in your comments. streets.mn sees debate as a learning opportunity. Please share your perspective in a respectful manner. View our full comment policy to learn more.

Thanks for commenting on streets.mn!