I’ve always loved road trips. On my old, long defunct North Star Highways site (still the name of my Flickr account), I would do what I call phototours, road trips focusing on “roadgeeking.” Flickr is a good place for photos, but not for narrative, and I thought this would be an appropriate place to for another part of the series, this one about Highway 14.
Originally there were multiple east-west routes across Minnesota, one just about as good as the other. In fact, as part of a post-war, pre-interstate plan to upgrade some of the nation’s major traffic routes, US 212 was slated to be upgraded to an expressway (the short, substandard US 61 expressway at Esko and the old US 52 expressway west of St Cloud are legacies of that). But when it came time for the interstates, focus zeroed in on the US 52 and US 16 corridors and the others were left unimproved.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first improvements were made to US 14, a freeway bypass on the north side of Mankato, and a short expressway west of Rochester, and things have been happening in fits and starts since then. US 14 is one of the most dangerous roads in the state, and improvements are driven more by the desire for safety and linking the towns into our expressway network to ease and speed up long distance travel than traffic volumes. Most of it is under the 10,000 vehicles a day threshold where you normally consider four lanes. There is an active association promoting the completion of four lanes from New Ulm to Rochester. The ultimate vision is a freeway east of Mankato and an expressway west of Mankato.
One wonders if it would have been better to have built I-90 where US 14 currently is; closer to Winona and Rochester and through Mankato. Of course, if that happened, we would now be addressing the same problems along US 16….
Here’s a map with the status of the improvements: Green: Freeway Complete, Red: Expressway Complete:, Yellow: Expressway Under Construction
The following is a compilation of two trips, one down to New Ulm and Owatonna to check out the new construction, and the other from Owatonna to Rochester.
The journey starts at the western city limits of New Ulm. MnDOT considered the concept of a bypass around the northwestern corner of the city, but it was dropped as “inconsistent with local traffic patterns;” most of the traffic was actually going to and from New Ulm.
Shortly after the sign is the “big box” zone, with a Menards and Walmart. My impression is downtown is still doing reasonably well; having big box here probably attracts the people that would instead drive to big boxes in Mankato to shop, so the dollars are kept in-town and a lot of driving is prevented.
Here’s the wide-suburban style road strip on the west side of town. This was rebuilt recently, but traffic volumes are over 20,000, making a three lane conversion unworkable.
The street lights look European, but they’re actually a Holophane product called the Mongoose. Holophane was more noted for making all kinds of glass optics than complete street light assemblies. As you can see by the sign, US 14 takes a turn to the north here, going across the Minnesota River.
A nice “Minnesota River Valley” scenic byway sign. I really like the Minnesota Scenic Byway markers, which are unique to each byway and often multiple colors.
And Minnesota highway markers are one of my favorites. The first ones were a gold star, then a white star, then a white square. The current design dates from the 1960s and was changed because the white squares looked too much like a speed limit sign; the letters were originally gold. Unfortunately the gold fades; some sign people would like to give up and just change it to white. Only Minnesota and Colorado use three colored designs.
New Ulm was one of the first areas to get LED traffic signals and pedestrian countdown signals. This very early design had letters a single LED width numbers and outline symbols, neither of which are still allowed.
Some early designs had the hand/man and the numbers as separate modules. This one the hand/man side was already replaced with exposed but filled symbols, and needs it again.
Here are some street lights in New Ulm. This is another Holophane product (which seem to be a lot more common outside the metro in southern and central Minnesota).
These are very non-dark sky compliant lights. And I think such non-cutoff lighting can even be desirable in a business district, where the up-glow lights up the façade of the building).
I have spent a lot of time exploring downtown New Ulm on foot, but that has already been covered here, so there’s no need for duplication.
The Minnesota River Bridge is due to be replaced next year. The river will demarcate the dividing line between the rural expressway and urban street. The interchange south of the river is going to be removed and replaced with a roundabout, with the 4-Lane “Death Road” segment converted to 3 lanes, and a bicycle trail built on the bridge. MnDOT originally proposed a four lane bridge, but the instead it will be two lanes, with the money saved going to build an interchange north of the river where State Highway 15 splits off. Present and forecast traffic counts don’t justify four lanes, and much of the traffic bound for town exits at County Road 37. The one concession to MnDOT is it will be expandable to four lanes if and when traffic volumes warrant.
This is the site of the future interchange just north of the bridge.
Here is a reminder this is not an expressway and is a dangerous road.
On a lighter note….
Courtland, Nicollet, and much farther along, Byron, are the three towns remaining on US 14. Since New Ulm to Mankato was envisioned as an expressway rather than full freeway, through town options were considered.
Driving through Courtland and Nicollet isn’t nearly as slow and tedious as driving through Waseca is, but the towns wanted bypasses, so they’re getting them. The following photo shows a view approaching Nicollet. This was actually an early bypass that got engulfed by the town, and it will be obliterated and returned to farmland when the new bypass is built.
Below are the future new lanes of US 14 east of Nicollet.
Interim safety improvements from Nicollet to Mankato consist of a wider center strip with pylons and rumble strips.
This is the beginning of the freeway segment around Mankato at a new interchange at County 6.
Below is the approach to the Minnesota River Bridge
Here is the bridge itself.
For many years the freeway ended at MN 22, and traffic was forced to exit. The expressway was extended to near Janesville in the 1990s . Already there’s regrets about building this as an expressway rather than a freeway; long term plans are to convert it to one; some minor intersection improvements are currently happending
US 14 closes occasionally in the winter, facilitated by permanent gates and signs.
A new interchange was built just east of State Highway 22 to serve a Wal-Mart distribution center. Besides safety, part of the motivation for the new freeway is to encourage commerce (I get the impression truckers really do not like two-lane roads). This is also part of the motivation for 4-laning US 20 across Iowa.
Old US 14 is being redone, and I found this detour sign kind of odd.
At Waseca, it’s unfortunate that the big box and fast food strip is now on the “wrong” side of town; it’s all north of town along MN 13, rather than by the freeway exits. There’s not even a gasoline station for travelers. I know some people here don’t share my love of highway oriented commercial, but having it nowhere near the highway has to be the worst possible scenario. My prediction is eventually the highway oriented commercial will move south, leaving vacant buildings on the north side.
I’m also not a fan of how excessively long the new freeway is, rather than cutting a diagonal. This is probably done to avoid splitting farms, but it’s likely the land on the city side of the bypass will be developed eventually, and you’ve now inconvenienced 10,000 people a day forever. I’d like to see a “buy the farm” law, where MnDOT would be able to buy out an entire farm if the owners wanted to sell rather than have their farm split. Or if the owners wanted to keep farming, MnDOT could build a cattle pass, like the one being built on the St. Croix Crossing approach road, where the angle necessitated splitting a farm in Wisconsin.
The Waseca corridor eastward to Owatonna was completed after they decided the goal was a controlled access facility with adequate funding, so it’s a freeway. This is the view approaching Owatonna.
The original plans were to have the interchange with I-35 as a diamond, but they found funding to make it a cloverleaf at the last minute.
On either side of I-35 are these neat signs….
Before and in the early days of numbered highways, the “auto trails” would have names, usually promoted by an association. Here’s the formal registration for the Black and Yellow Trail.
The Yellow Stone Trail (US 14) and the King of Trails (US 75) have also been officially revived.
US 218 runs concurrent with the US 14, although the eastbound signs say “To” and westbound there is an “End US 218” sign well in advance of I-35. Believe or not there are “roadgeeks” that obsess over such things, and even take pictures of highway termini, and this has caused some confusion.
At this point I turned around to go home for the day, driving through Owatonna. They have some unique street lights there.
The top one is just a standard Cooper Lighting model OVX cobrahead like you see around the metro, but the pole is unique.
Picking up on my next trip (heading to Wisconsin Dells), we see the new construction. The four lane expressway south of town has been around a long time (and was instrumental in decommissioning Kaplan Woods State Park due to having new freeways on two sides of it). Formerly the four lane expressway ended short of US 218, this was improved in the early 2000s.
The current project extends the expressway a few miles west, shown in red. Although the goal is a freeway, they are not building an interchange east of town at this time. A “Reduced Conflict Intersection” was greeted with the usual scorn by locals, so they’re building an at-grade intersection for now. Most of the new freeway is going to be on new alignment next to the railroad tracks, this actually causes the least disruption since private houses and accesses on both sides of the existing US 14 can remain.
Now we’re back to two lanes. The haze is from the western wildfires.
Windmills line the horizon.
This is one of only two signals, both of which are at Byron.
Every single “Don’t Walk” light was burned out. They were burned out when I was here last year, and were in 2007 judging by Google Street View. And one of the pedestrian buttons was broken. Don’t think they get too many pedestrians here. I reported the issues to Mn/DOT and have been told they’ve been fixed.
Among the unexpected sights I found was this defunct mini-golf course.
Approaching US 52. It’s hard to see, but an extension of the Douglas State Trail crosses just before the highway bridge. Although the road continues to downtown Rochester, the US 14 designation turns and follow the bypass, as did I.
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