Hodgman excited but still ‘apprehensive’ about Hwy. 14 funding
Improvements to Highway 14 in Steele and Dodge Counties have been a personal issue for West Concord resident Beth Hodgman for years.
Hodgman’s husband, Scott, and two other people were killed Nov. 6, 2012 in an accident on the two-lane stretch of Highway 14 near Dodge Center. Through the years she has maintained weather played a role in the crash and that her husband would still be alive if the highway had been four lanes.
So when she heard that Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill last week that would ensure the funding for upgrading the 12-1/2 mile piece of road from Owatonna to Dodge Center, she was happy but not ready to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Like everybody else I was excited,” she said. But her excitement was tempered by continuing apprehension.
“I’ll feel better when I see the dirt flying,” she said.
And with good reason.
Hodgman said that before her husband’s death she really had not thought a lot about the highway. She worked in Rochester but traveled the back roads to get there because she did like not driving on it.
“After you lose your husband, you can’t sleep,” she said. She said people suggested she read on those sleepless nights. What she did was internet research on the highway and traffic fatalities and injuries. One of the pieces of information she found included a newspaper story that called the roadway the Highway of Horrors. Published in 2007, the story said that since the mid-1980s 145 people had been killed on the highway. The number has continued to rise in the years since then.
What she learned turned into her personal crusade to upgrade Highway 14 to four lane status.
In March of 2013, four months after Scott’s death, then Rep. Patty Fritz contacted Hodgman. She said that although she did not know Scott, she had heard about the crash from people in her district who did know him. After talking with Hodgman, Fritz asked her to come to St. Paul and testify about the dangers of the highway.
Although Hodgman said she was not enthusiastic about testifying, she “thought and prayed” about it and decided she should do it.
She made several trips to St. Paul in her push to get funding for the improvements and by late 2013 the project seemed to be on track as it was announced that the project would be funded through the newly passed Corridors of Commerce program. Initially the program was to fund three separate projects on Highway 14, the Owatonna to Dodge Center portion, North Mankato to Nicollet and the Nicollet bypass.
In the six years since then, portions of the projects have been completed but two 12-1/2 mile segments remain unfinished. Finances have delayed the remaining segments of the highway several times, the most recent when wording of a bill passed in 2018 threatened to delay the Owatonna to Dodge Center portion even longer.
“I don’t exactly understand what went wrong,” Hodgman said.
She didn’t get involved, she said, just because her husband had been killed. When she found out just how dangerous the roadway was, she said, it became something she was doing for everyone who lost someone in a crash, was injured or just travels on Highway 14.
“It’s not just for my benefit,” she said, “but for every family, every teenage kid who drives to Triton or goes to work in Owatonna. Before Scott died I never realized how bad it was.”
“I understand if they don’t have the money,” she said, but at least the state could have taken some safety measures. On the other two-lane stretch, she said, the state has placed orange markers in the middle of the roadway. Even this would have helped, she said, because often people cross the center line on the local portion of the road.
She wonders, she said, if local officials and representatives lobbied hard enough for the road. There have been more deaths on Highway 14 than were caused by the 35W bridge collapse, she said. The bridge was back up and running 15 months after the collapse, she said.
She also wonders if the project has taken so long because it is in Greater Minnesota and not the metro area. Shut down Highway 14 for a day, she said, and see how that affects the entire state of Minnesota, she said.
So because of all the delays Hodgman remains apprehensive.
After the initial bill providing funding was passed last session, Hodgman said she never felt the champagne-popping euphoria that local and state officials felt.
That is why she will finally feel relief when the dirt is turned and construction finally begins.