One commissioner objects, and another acknowledges a conflict of interest with property purchase.
Despite protests of foul odors from one commissioner and a “potential conflict of interest” acknowledged by another, the Washington County Board voted last week to approve a second construction contract that will move a long-planned transit station in Newport forward.
The 3-1 vote, with Lisa Weik opposing and Autumn Lehrke abstaining, means that the transit station and its park-and-ride lot will open in October 2014 as an initial step in the Red Rock Corridor development, which someday could include bus rapid transit or even light-rail service to downtown St. Paul.
The site near the Wakota Bridge on Interstate 494 has been described as a blighted area that will reverse its fortunes with an influx of government money.
Weik, a champion of the planned Gateway transit corridor that runs through her district in Woodbury, unexpectedly took issue with the Newport station, saying it was too close to a garbage-burning plant and a South St. Paul animal rendering plant. Weik said she changed her support for the Newport station after recently experiencing odors from the nearby plants.
“It really is offensive,” she said. “I don’t think people riding the bus would pick that spot.”
Weik also raised concerns about paying for the station with funding from the transit sales tax that collects money in five metro counties. Metro Transit, not the counties, should be funding the project, because initially express buses will serve the route, she said, and it’s too early to know what mode of transit will be chosen for the route.
“I think we shouldn’t open the door to this. The timing is off,” she said. “If we move forward with this, we take over the capital costs from Metro Transit to build the park-and-ride.”
The discussion — and subsequent vote to award a construction contract to Meisinger Construction Company Inc. — came under the auspices of the county’s Regional Rail Authority, which is the County Board by another name. Lehrke, who leads the authority, announced her conflict of interest without explanation and abstained from the discussion.
Afterward, Lehrke said that she and her husband, who have an investment property business, have made a purchase offer on commercial property close to the transit site. In addition to representing Newport on the County Board, Lehrke also is chairwoman of the Red Rock Corridor Commission.
Derrick Lehrke is a Cottage Grove City Council member.
The Newport site, west of Hwy. 61 where a Knox Lumber building has sat vacant for years, is seen as a catalyst for economic development. Overall, the transit site will consume about 5 acres of county land, leaving 6 more acres for a potential housing and retail development.
Commissioners Ted Bearth, Gary Kriesel and Fran Miron voted in favor of the contract.
“What I see here is a swaddling baby that will eventually grow,” Bearth said. “I think it’s the right time, it’s the right project.”
The city of Newport has embraced the project, which will include commercial properties, as rejuvenating a blighted neighborhood. “This is going to change the whole dynamic of that area,” City Administrator Deb Hill said recently.
The contract with Meisinger for transit station construction and electrical work will cost $970,000. That’s about $18,000 more than a bid by Parkos Construction of West St. Paul. The County Board rejected that bid after County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said that Parkos had failed to meet Disadvantaged Business Enterprise requirements imposed when federal and state funding is involved.
In October, the rail authority approved entering into a contract with Rachel Contracting for $1.298 million for Knox Lumber demolition, grading, utilities, paving, landscaping and irrigation.
The city of Newport agreed to waive $20,000 in building permit fees.