Carver County will open a newly reconstructed 4.5-mile stretch of Hwy. 212 this weekend between the cities of Carver and Cologne, the first phase of a project expected to cost more than $100 million to make the busy road safer.
"It's by far the largest road project in Carver County history. So that itself has set the tone," said Commissioner John Fahey.
The project's second phase, likely to cost $77 million to $80 million, will extend highway improvements about 6 miles farther to Norwood Young America. Construction is expected to begin in 2024.
Hwy. 212, which runs from the Twin Cities to southwest Minnesota and the South Dakota line, is a major route for semitrailer trucks. Local officials have pushed for decades to secure funding to expand the highway's lanes and improve traffic intersections.
Funding for the first phase includes $14 million from the Minnesota Department of Transportation; $7.5 million in federal funds administered by MnDOT; and $7 million in federal funds granted through the Metropolitan Council's Regional Solicitation program.
Last month, Carver County also received $10 million from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (INFRA), a nationwide competitive grant program for freight and highway projects.
And $6.5 million for the project came from the county sales tax, which was approved by the County Board in 2017, said Public Works Director Lyndon Robjent.
"That was really the reason, I think, that this project really happened, is that the county had the ability to actually put some real local funding into these state projects," he said.
Robjent called the project one of the most satisfying he's ever worked on. "I would say it's the top of my career, by far. ... Just assembling the whole project as a team effort is quite a story in itself," he said.
Though many local officials made the project a priority, demands for funding took several attempts over the years. Before they received the INFRA grant, Robjent said they applied 12 times without success for federal grants.
"For every dollar they had, there were requests for $10," said former Carver County Commissioner Jim Ische, who advocated for the project. "That was sometimes — I don't know if I should say frustrating — but I'm not necessarily a patient man. And I was hoping that we could get some funding a little earlier than we did. But we just kept up the good fight."
Ische, who served as commissioner for 24 years, said he knew some people who died in crashes on Hwy. 212. "It was almost personal for me to try to improve the safety there," he said.
Between 2009 and 2019, there were nearly 560 wrecks on the stretches of the highway being improved, including 13 fatal crashes and six serious-injury crashes, according to local officials.
A safety measure incorporated in the highway redesign includes Reduced Conflict Intersections (RCI), also referred to as J-turns, that "decrease fatalities and injuries caused by broadside crashes on four-lane divided highways," according to MnDOT.
Project Manager Darin Mielke said that many residents say they don't like using RCIs "because it's out of the direction travel" — but he added they also agree with him that road safety has increased after they've been built.
"We're way past the horse-and-buggy era," said Jeff Kohls, owner of Payton-Claire Express, a trucking firm that uses Hwy. 212 every day. "Everything's getting bigger, and people want to go places, and they want to have safe roads. And good roads. And we should have that."