An economic turnaround that brightened the state's financial outlook during the just-completed legislative session will have a trickle-down effect on Washington County, which will receive millions of dollars in funding for an array of projects.
The Gateway Corridor transit project was one of the biggest winners to emerge from a legislative debate that resulted in an $846 million bonding bill. Another $200 million in cash will also be used for projects statewide.
Gateway Corridor, which would run along Interstate 94 from St. Paul's Union Depot to Manning Avenue in Woodbury, was included in the list of projects eligible for $15 million in bonding money allocated to the Metropolitan Council for developing transitways. The bill directs the Met Council to consult with the Counties Transit Improvement Board and to distribute the money fairly across the Twin Cities region.
East metro leaders have complained often that their region is relegated to the back of the line when it comes to allocating funds. Bonding requests for the Gateway Corridor of $1 million were sought in both 2012 and 2013, but were not awarded.
Inclusion of the project in the bonding bill came on the heels of President Obama's announcement at a speech in New York that the Gateway Corridor project is one of 11 nationwide to be put on a fast track for development. "We're cutting bureaucratic red tape that stalls good projects from breaking ground," the president said.
Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik, chairwoman of the Gateway Corridor Commission, was pleased. "When I think of all of the other projects in the queue hoping for federal funds, I'm so grateful to have Gateway in this group," she said. The project, either bus-rapid transit or a light-rail line, is targeted to open in 2022.
Several other projects in the county will benefit from bond funding. They include:
• $3.5 million to Lake Elmo to help pay for a 2½-mile extension of the water main, a water tower and other work for two new housing developments.
• $2 million for renovations at Century College in White Bear Lake to improve workforce training, including lab and classroom upgrades.
• $1.6 million for completing a small but crucial gap between current and future trail systems linking Washington and Dakota counties. The money is needed to complete a 1,200-foot gap that crosses railroad tracks, posing safety problems because of its proximity to Hwy. 61. The trail would link the Point Douglas Regional Trail now being developed with the St. Croix Scenic Riverway and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
• $1.46 million to help pay for the Health and Emergency Response Occupations (HERO) Center in Cottage Grove, a joint project with Inver Hills Community College and, possibly, other communities.
• $500,000 to continue development of the Gateway State Trail from Pine Point County Park to William O'Brien State Park.
• $150,000 to help pay for a boardwalk and trails at the Oakdale Nature Preserve. The project would provide handicapped accessibility to a viewing dock on Mud Lake.
The county also received a $1.25 million grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. The money will be used to help purchase 15 acres of land known as the Aiple property north of Stillwater and along the St. Croix River to create a city park. The county is still negotiating the sale.
A bill giving Bayport four acres owned by the state near the Stillwater prison to use for a new fire station also passed. The land, once part of a prison farm, is no longer needed by the state Department of Corrections.
Some bills directly affecting Washington County did not get passed.
For a second time, an effort to give the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources oversight authority on local zoning decisions for land along the lower St. Croix River — authority it had exercised for more than 30 years before a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling — died in committee.
And a bill that would have allowed Washington County to designate "border city development zones," part of the County Board's renewed focus on economic development and job creation, also did not get out of committee. Under the bill, the County Board would have been allowed to designate all or part of a community as a border city development zone, and the state would fund tax incentives and other perks to attract potential businesses in areas near neighboring states. The county may try again to get the plan passed, said Kevin Corbid, assistant county administrator.
Hugo's request for $3 million to fund a stormwater reuse project also fell by the wayside. The project was expected to save the city 54 million gallons of water annually. Given the concern with water issues in the northeast metro, Bryan Bear, Hugo's city administrator, said the decision was particularly disappointing.
"These are exactly the kinds of things the state is asking us to do," he said, referring to efforts by cities to shift from groundwater to surface water. The city might look to other funding sources. "It remains the philosophy of our City Council to be responsible with our resources, and to minimize our impact on the aquifer."