When a second round of construction bids for the overhaul of S. Robert Street came in $5 million lower than previous offers, West St. Paul officials breathed a sigh of relief — but just for a second.
“We still have a financial gap that we need to fill, even with this lower number,” City Manager Matt Fulton said.
West St. Paul is trying to patch together funding, including requesting $8 million more from the state, to complete the largest public works project in the city’s history, the first phase of which is expected to cost $30.9 million. Council members have characterized the Robert Street redo as a defining issue for the future of the city. They want to make the roadway, now the scene of many accidents, safer and more attractive to businesses and residents.
It has been a bumpy process.
Businesses are worried about the effect of construction, scheduled to start this spring. Residents dislike the increased taxes needed to pay for the new street.
And when the city received construction bids in October, the lowest offer was nearly $8 million higher than leaders hoped, forcing officials to review ways to cut costs and rebid.
So it was a pleasant surprise when officials opened the five new bids last week. The lowest, from Eureka Construction, was about $23 million — $1.1 million less than anticipated.
“I think we bid it at a better time,” Fulton said. “When we bid it the last time it was during a very active construction season. So we only received two bids before, and I think people were very busy.”
Next on the Robert Street to-do list, the city is trying to get the state to chip in another $8 million, in addition to the already promised $5.6 million. West St. Paul hired a lobbyist and is working with local legislators to draft a bill requesting the money.
Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, knows the needs of Robert Street well. In fact, he was experiencing them firsthand as he discussed the situation.
“I’m driving on Robert Street right now and it’s bumpy,” Hansen said. “I hear when I’m door knocking that people want it fixed. They realize it’s not only a main thoroughfare, but it’s a business corridor.”
Nearly all legislators have specific requests for their districts, and an individual bill would be a “hard lift,” Hansen said. The project could receive money through a large transportation bill or other source. It could take a year or two to secure funding, he said, but he wants to introduce a bill now and let the city make its case.
Mayor David Meisinger is doubtful that the push will pay off this legislative session.
“I think, for this session, we’re behind the eight ball too far to be able to make it up to the top of the list and get approved and get funding,” Meisinger said.
The newly elected mayor has been opposed to the proposed plan for Robert Street. He said it unduly burdens city residents.
“We are setting a very bad precedent here,” Meisinger said. “It’s not the responsibility of the West St. Paul taxpayers to fix the state highway.”
The city is currently on the hook for $11.1 million. Meisinger fears that number will continue to grow. He plans to ask staff to verify cost estimates at a council meeting Thursday.
The council will talk over the new bids and next steps at that meeting.