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Hwy. 101 bridge upgrade gains steam

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • February 4, 2012 - 9:53 PM

"Let's do it right," Gov. Mark Dayton declared late last week in expressing support for a four-lane upgrade to the Hwy. 101 bridge in Shakopee.

The line drew applause from a room jammed with civic leaders from Scott and Carver counties.

But the fine print was equally important:

"If the $25 million rates competitively, I will support the [idea] with legislators."

To translate:

First, the $25 million upgrade to the existing two lanes to bring the bridge up out of most potential floodwaters has to pass muster compared to other projects in the quest for limited flood-mitigation money.

Then, it's a matter of working out the politics of extra lanes with legislators, which could include resistance from conservatives to spending too much, and resistance from liberals to spending they may regard as promoting suburban sprawl. That project is short about $10 million.

On the first of those questions, transportation commissioner Tom Sorel, who accompanied the governor to Scott County, was encouraging.

"The solicitation" -- the formal process of evaluating competing proposals -- "will close in a couple of weeks," he said, "and you're positioned pretty well. 101 needs to move forward. It's predicated today on two lanes. We'll work out what it could be in the future."

Scott County now has two key committee chairs, albeit not of Dayton's political party, and one of them, Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, heads the transportation committee in the House.

Beard was frank about an obstacle to four lanes.

"We're working well with MnDOT folks to get this scoped and get preliminary engineering done," he said, "but you're crossing the river bottom and that's holy ground."

Translation: As often happens with Scott projects, roads threaten to cut into and potentially harm natural resources overseen by state and federal agencies for whom commute times are not the primary issue.

"With four lanes you have to knock some old trees down to do construction work," Beard added, and you need clearance from state and federal agencies including Washington-based wildlife protectors who "get up cranky in the morning."

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who was present, said: "Your residents like natural resources. It is a challenge. You can have economic development and natural resources. It's better not to ignore either one. I'm committed to work with you to get both."

Scott officials said before the meeting that they feel reasonably confident about the flood upgrade, but the dicey issue is going to be the four-lane upgrade.

Former Shakopee Mayor John Schmitt, who's been invited to stay involved in such matters even after being defeated for re-election in November, told Dayton that four lanes is important for multiple reasons.

It doesn't just help keep traffic moving during flood closures elsewhere along the river, he said, but improves the chances the whole project can be done without a prolonged shutdown of the entire bridge, a shutdown that would be "devastating" to residents and businesses.

The Dayton visit stems from a pledge he made during the last flooding episode a year ago this spring.

Deputy Scott County Administrator Lezlie Vermillion reminded the governor of the increasing frequency of major flood events in the county and their cost.

"In the 80-year history of the Hwy. 41 bridge, it's closed 10 times -- three of them in the last two years. It's trending upward and it's projected to continue to do that."

When both 41 and 101 close, she said, the cost to users who must drive up to 20 miles to find a crossing runs to $670,000 a day, and closures can last for over a week.

The fix being contemplated for 101 won't completely prevent closings, she said, but it would take a flood of the epic magnitude of the 1965 scale, still memorably recorded on roadside signs, to close it.

The session was convivial despite taking place across party lines. But there was one joking reminder that the governor at least was not forgetting the political divide.

When a Shakopee lawyer recalled being "one of the first people ever to vote for you," as a fellow high schooler in a student election, Dayton shot back:

"How many times have you voted for me since?"

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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