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Questions remain as legislative session enters final month

The Minnesota Capitol photographed in January 2017. File photo

Not many people were pleased with how the 2016 legislative session ended. No transportation bill was passed, and a bonding bill was left on the floor in the session's waning seconds, leaving sorely needed projects on hold throughout the state. Representatives and local officials are hopeful that the 2017 session concludes on a more positive, and more productive, note.

There are three key local issues that Red Wing city officials would like to see resolved before the Legislature adjourns on May 22: two bonding requests to begin important infrastructure improvements, and a reimbursement to the city relating to the Highway 61 reconstruction project.

The Red Wing River Town Renaissance and the Sturgeon Lake Road overpass need bonding requests approved by the state before moving forward.

The River Town Renaissance project combines multiple projects aimed at revitalizing Red Wing's downtown and riverfront areas. The city has requested $4.5 million in bonds, which will be leveraged with nearly $5 million from other funding sources. With the project, the city hopes to bring significant improvements to the Levee Park area, as well upgrades to the Sheldon Theatre.

An overpass bridge on Sturgeon Lake Road is the largest project on Red Wing's bonding wish list. The city has requested $15.9 million in bonds. The bridge will not only significantly improve transportation in the area, but address safety concerns as well.

Currently, the only way on or off Prairie Island is Sturgeon Lake Road. If there's a train, access is completely blocked.

"There's a lot of people on Prairie Island, and we don't want ambulances or other emergency vehicles having to wait 20 minutes for a train to pass," said Hallock. "These projects are absolutely critical for Red Wing's development over the next 20, 30, 50 years."

The last item concerns the Highway 61 reconstruction project. The construction ended last year, but Red Wing residents are still stuck with a $968,000 bill. According to Red Wing officials, the $968,000 should be reimbursed by the state.

"There was almost $1.5 million of trunk highway costs spent by the city of Red Wing. Those are typically borne by the state," Hallock said. "The state recognized that, and gave us $500,000. We're asking them to resolve the remaining $968,000."

Earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Charles Zelle expressed reservations with the reimbursement. In a letter sent to Transportation Finance Chair Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska), Zelle called it an "earmark," and argued that legislating changes to an existing contract would set a dangerous precedent.

"We believe that's a gross miscategorization of what we asked for," said Hallock. "We believe it's a reimbursement request. The precedent has been long-established that the state covers trunk highway costs."

A few local officials, including Hallock and Mayor Sean Dowse, met Thursday with the Department of Transportation to discuss the issue. "We're fairly confident that we'll find an amicable solution," said Hallock. "We want something that works for everyone."

According to Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, the Highway 61 reimbursement has the support of the House Transportation and Finance Committee.

Looking toward May 22

Both the River Town Renaissance and the Sturgeon Lake overpass bridge bonding requests were in the failed 2016 bill and remain in the 2017 requests made by the Senate and the governor. Haley is confident that Red Wing's projects will be included in a final bill, but said a budget must get done before the House tackles bonding.

According to Hallock, residents have an important role to play in bringing these infrastructure projects to fruition. "Reach out to legislators, reach out to the speaker, reach out to the governor, and let them know that these projects have real world impacts and affect our quality of life."