With public attention focused on debates in the Capitol rotunda, a more select crowd filled a small ­conference room last week to fight over transportation legislation aimed at northern Minnesota.

The concrete industry wanted to raise the weight limits on Minnesota highways so it could haul heavier loads. Railroads and a truckers union opposed the idea, saying the extra weight could damage roads and compromise safety — as well as cost them money and jobs.

“Everybody’s got an economic interest,” remarked veteran lobbyist John Apitz, who represented the railroads.

Heavier trucks won. The legislation that was passed in the final days of the session allows the trucks to haul heavier loads “to or from a distribution facility … constructed on or after July 1, 2013, and located within the Department of Transportation District 4.”

The opaque language exactly describes a facility planned by the home improvement giant Menards in the northwestern Minnesota city of Frazee.

The legislation, which has gone to Gov. Mark Dayton, allows designated trucks to haul as much as 99,000 pounds on as many as seven axles. Currently, most trucks are limited to hauling 80,000 pounds on five axles.

While the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) favors increasing truck weights on state highways, the change comes as the federal government is studying the impact of heavy trucks on safety, pavement and bridges. The U.S. Department of Transportation will hold a public hearing on the issue later this month in Washington.

‘Take care of our community’

The state has made exceptions over the years to allow trucks to haul more weight for farm commodities or wood products.

This time legislators considered expanding the weight exception to “hot mix asphalt, plastic concrete” and similar material.

But an opponent saw a more narrow interest.

“We all know this is about Menards,” Edward Reynoso, a Teamsters union official, told legislators at the House-Senate conference committee on transportation.

The retailer is interested in building a distribution center in Frazee, about 10 miles southeast of Detroit Lakes. It wants the weight limits lifted because the facility will be distributing concrete products, said Fred Daggett, a former Frazee mayor who sits on the local economic development authority and runs a trucking firm.

“It was one of the criteria that Menards needed to proceed,” Daggett said.

He credited Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, for spearheading a bill to allow heavier freight of any sort on state highways. That led to the legislation on the second-to-the-last day of the session that limited the allowance to trucks hauling to and from an unnamed future distribution facility in northwestern Minnesota.

“Our special interest was, ‘Let’s take care of our community, let’s create some economic development,’ ” said Ryan Rustad, a Frazee banker familiar with the efforts to increase the truck weights.

Menards did not respond to a request for comment about its plans.

MnDOT has recommended increasing truck weights and axles on state highways, citing greater efficiency for the freight industry. MnDOT said there is no evidence that heavier weight spread over more axles would create greater damage to highways or jeopardize safety, although it noted concerns that exceptions to weight limits made enforcement more difficult.

The Teamsters’ Reynoso, who acknowledged concerns that bigger trucks could mean fewer drivers, urged legislators to wait for the federal study before deciding whether to make another exception to weight limits.

Solar perk prevails

Another piece of special-interest legislation that overcame opposition in the final days of the session was a requirement that any solar panels installed in buildings, highways and bridges by MnDOT be manufactured in Minnesota.

The “Made in Minnesota” mandate was pushed by DFL lawmakers from the Iron Range, where one of the two Minnesota manufacturers of solar panels is located. Silicon Energy of Mountain Iron said it needed the mandate to compete with cheaper panels made elsewhere in the United States and in China. Its operators also contributed to DFL political campaigns.

The mandate stalled when the House and Senate split on including it in the transportation policy bill, but it resurfaced in the final days of the session.

Still, there was a hitch: Neither Minnesota firm made the kind of solar panels that the state might want to install in highway signs, MnDOT project specialist Erik Rudeen told legislators.

So legislators added a sentence to the legislation. The mandate wouldn’t apply if “no solar photovoltaic modules are available that meet the ‘Made in Minnesota’ criteria and fulfill the function required by the project.”

The transportation bill passed.