A joined pair of highway signs indicate the end of Minnesota Highway 96 and the beginning of Washington County Highway 96.

A Check-in With Minnesota’s Trunk Highway System

A recurring topic of interest to me is the history of Minnesota’s trunk highway system and the changes to it. I covered this comprehensively in my article series, History of Minnesota’s Trunk Highways, here and on my own site, North Star Highways.

The two key points to know from those articles are these:

  1. Each trunk highway has a legally authorized number of constitutional and legislative routes, which may or may not match their signed number.
  2. Two major expansions were forced onto the state’s Department of Highways in 1933 and 1949, many of which were of dubious statewide value.

Over time the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has been trying to “turn back” many of these highways to local control, at a rate of about one a year. This requires both agreement with the local agency to accept the road and changes to the state laws authorizing the highway. Acceptance by a local agency generally requires MnDOT to reconstruct the road, or a cash payment to the local agency to reconstruct the road itself.

Here are some of the recent and upcoming changes to our trunk highway system.

Highway 96

State Highway 96, originally stretching across the northeast metro, was part of the 1933 expansion. There was a 1950s plan to extend it across the river with a new “High Bridge” to replace the Stillwater Lift Bridge; even back then traffic congestion on the Lift Bridge was considered an issue. But ultimately the new bridge went south of town and Highway 96 was always local in character, of little statewide significance.

The western portion, stretching from I-35W to US 61, was turned back in the mid-1990s, although the state statute authorizing it was never amended. Instead there was the legal fiction that Highway 96 continued to serve New Brighton as required by statute, by being overlaid on other trunk highways in a roundabout fashion. Now it is the turn of most of the rest of Highway 96 to be turned back. In 2021, the law authorizing state jurisdiction of Highway 96 was modified to trigger with these changes (and to finally formally remove the section to New Brighton) as soon as MnDOT and Washington County reached and filed an agreement. The county accepted the agreement in the fall of 2022, and the formal transfer occurred May 1, 2023. New signs went up last summer.

What remains of Trunk Highway 96 in Ramsey County is less than a mile long, from US 61 to the junction of Highway 244. The original agreement would have made the highway a block shorter at the county line, but someone paid notice to a statutory requirement that trunk highways touch another trunk highway on at least one end. That would have created an issue with Highway 244, since a section of that highway between the County Line and Stillwater Road was turned back recently.

Highway 96
Highway 96, previous turnback in black and recent turnback in yellow. Base map from MnDOT

Washington County received $14.46 million to be used for future projects on the road. A $1.3 million study currently is in the works, to include “a functional analysis of the Highway 96 corridor through Dellwood and Grant looking at current and future needs to provide a vision that helps guide roadway improvements.” The study promises to “look at future needs regarding highway capacity, intersections, access, right-of way, drainage, pedestrian/bicycle facilities, utilities, etc.”

Highway 96 becomes County Highway 96. Author photo.

Highway 123

A future turnback of Trunk Highway 123 would include the section from the Sandstone River bridge to the junction with Highway 23. The legal framework for this was passed in this year’s legislative session, so it hinges on MnDOT reaching an agreement with Pine County.

Highway 123 was another 1933 addition, and like Highway 96 isn’t especially important in a statewide context. A section of Old Highway 61 curiously remained under state control even after I-35 was built. This is due to the legal requirement that Constitutional Route 1— basically today’s I-35 and MN 61— touch the city limits of Sandstone. So Constitutional 1 leaves the freeway at exit 191, goes through Sandstone, then rejoins at exit 195. Sandstone now has grown to touch the interstate, so this section of Old Highway 61 could be turned back in the future, as happened with a similar section between Pine City and Rush City.

Sandstone Map
MnDOT map of the Sandstone area annotated with the highway to turned back.
Kettle River Bridge
Kettle River Bridge. Author photo.

Highways 67, 167 and 274

As I reported previously, a slope failure on Highway 67 outside of Upper Sioux Agency State Park between the main area and the campground prompted a plan to reroute Highway 67 away from the area. This summer guardrail, rumble strips and striping will occur on the county roads the state has taken over. Recently MnDOT obtained federal funds for safety projects, including the installation of lighting at the two new right-angle turns and elimination of the skew at the intersection with Highway 23.

Slope Failue on Highway 67
Slope failure on Highway 67. Author photo.

With this came the disappearance of marked Highway 274; all but a couple of blocks were overlaid with the reroute of Highway 67. Born anew was Highway 167, covering what was Highway 67 from Granite Falls to the state park. Legislative Route 341 was created to authorize this.

Upper Sioux Agency State Park is now permanently closed, primarily due to unrelated considerations. It’s notable that had it remained a state park, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would have been responsible for building an expensive, disruptive replacement road connecting the main area of the park to the campground (the park infrastructure had other serious issues as well).

Here’s a before-and-after mark showing the changes in the area

Map of the Granite Falls area, original from MnDOT and modified to show the changes. The red “X” marks the permanent road closure.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.