Keith Baker has been preparing for this moment for years, meeting with local and state leaders and drafting plans for a land bridge to reconnect the historically Black Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul after it was razed 60 years ago to make way for Interstate 94.
Those efforts got a hypothetical boost this week when President Joe Biden rolled out his sweeping $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan. The money will not only repair aging roads, bridges and school buildings, but also invest in broadband, clean water and the electric grid. There's $20 billion in the plan to address racial disparities exacerbated when communities like Rondo were torn apart by past infrastructure projects.
"We have elders in our community that are still here and still feel the impacts today," said Baker, executive director of nonprofit ReConnect Rondo. "We feel like we're extraordinarily well-positioned to really benefit from and to also help guide some of the administration and ideas."
Minnesotans across the state were taking stock of the historic proposal this week and what it could mean for long-languishing projects in their communities. While the bill is still being drafted — details are scant from the White House on how much could be coming to individual states — transportation officials and Democratic lawmakers were unequivocal about the backlog of needs in Minnesota, which hasn't raised new transportation revenue since 2008.
"We need this type of infrastructure money in all of these areas because we are so far behind," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He's hopeful the state could improve passenger rail and rapid bus infrastructure and tackle massive projects like Duluth's Blatnik Bridge with the federal funding. "It's going to take a massive investment like this in all of these different sectors for us to catch up."
But the proposal is already getting pushback from congressional Republicans, coming quickly on the tails of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer said talking points from the White House about the plan "raise serious red flags."
"It isn't an infrastructure bill," Emmer said. "I mean, 25% of it relates to traditional transportation infrastructure. The rest of it goes for things like $400 billion to expand Medicaid, $213 billion for housing and increased federal control over local housing markets."
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber said in a statement that he's "committed to working in a bipartisan fashion to achieve infrastructure investment that will not raise taxes on the middle class."
The proposal has a challenging future in Congress. No Republicans voted for the final version of Biden's relief package in March, and Democrats may have to get creative if they wish to pass the sprawling plan given their slim House and Senate majorities.
Democrats in Minnesota's delegation were quick to highlight parts of the plan they liked or have championed in the past.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar emphasized the $100 billion in the bill dedicated to broadband infrastructure, as well as job training opportunities as the economy recovers from the pandemic.
"We're not going to have a shortage of sports marketing degrees; we're going to have a shortage of electricians and plumbers and construction workers," Klobuchar said. "So contained in this bill is training and retraining workers for the jobs that will be created, and I think that should not be lost."
The White House proposal also includes a clean electricity standard that Sen. Tina Smith has been pushing. The energy portions of the plan would have "direct benefits for Minnesota," said Smith, who is hoping to "get to net-zero carbon emissions in the electricity sector as soon as possible, by no later than 2050."
Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher has already calculated that state and local governments could deploy an additional $100 million this construction season alone if the proposal were to pass soon. Biden's plan includes $620 billion for transportation infrastructure.
The former DFL House speaker was instrumental in overriding former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a gas-tax increase in 2008 after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. But in the next decade, the state estimates it needs to invest $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion in bridges in the state. Between 9 and 11% of Minnesota's national and state highway bridges will be in poor condition by 2031.
"If these resources can come toward helping us get out of that bridge backlog, that will be a very big deal for Minnesota," she said. "That piece alone is exciting, just because we can see that we continue to fall further behind on how our bridges are doing."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559