After years of futility at the Legislature, Richfield is celebrating getting state funding for a much-desired underpass that would run under Hwy. 77, linking the city to the Mall of America area and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The bonding money, which city officials hope amounts to at least $15 million, would go toward a $25 million project to extend 77th Street east of Hwy. 77. A stub of never-completed road already exists.
"We are thrilled," said DFL Rep. Linda Slocum of Richfield, a primary advocate for the project at the Legislature. "We've been waiting 20 years for this."
City officials have long wanted the connection to the east side of Hwy. 77, also known as Cedar Avenue. They believe the road extension is of regional value, providing an outlet for traffic congestion on nearby Interstate 494 and perhaps jump-starting redevelopment in a neglected corner of Richfield.
"It's important, no doubt about it," said Mike Eastling, the city's director of public works. "It will bring traffic and business to a corridor that is underdeveloped right now."
Richfield is eager to prepare for the project, but the city doesn't yet know exactly how much state money it will get. Bonding was changed this year, and the 77th Street underpass is one of three named projects in a $54.4 million category for local road improvements. Slocum said the Minnesota Department of Transportation will come up with a process to determine how much projects get.
When she and city officials met recently with Transportation Department Commissioner Charles Zelle, she said, he told them that he would clarify the process as soon as he could.
She made her wishes clear.
"We want $15 million at least," Slocum said. The city would have to find the rest of the project money, estimated at $6 million to $10 million, by looking to partners for help. City officials started talking with other stakeholders last year.
Now, 77th Street on the west side of Hwy. 77 in Richfield curves north and meets a frontage road. Old apartments, businesses and parking lots mark the area, along with a Motel 6. The city's Washington Park is nearby.
Across the highway, there's a large Metro Transit bus garage, as well as the mall and a shortcut to the airport.
It probably will be years before any underpass is open. The city will have to acquire land for the project, which officials think eventually would spur redevelopment that could include new hotels and restaurants.
"We have big steps and expensive steps we need to go through," Eastling said.
But Slocum said the hardest part may be done. Before this year's success, she had unsuccessfully sought state funding for the underpass for eight years, and her predecessor at the Legislature did the same.
"We are tickled and delighted to know that we have some bonding money," she said. "We told Commissioner Zelle that we're ready to do this."