A costly effort to prevent flooding-related road closures in Scott County is expected to take a big jump forward this week with the release of a state-led study on what needs to be done.
But that will only be the starting gun for the battle to come. With limited funds available, the real question is who gets its needs paid for first: the south metro, the Red River Valley or other areas around the state?
"Four times in the last three years our crossings have closed, and for a couple of weeks at a time," said Shakopee Republican Mike Beard, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "For the dollars invested, it's one of those no-brainer deals -- and they [transportation planners] get that too."
But Jon Ulrich, the top transportation figure on the County Board, is worried about who will get the money. He's proposing a full-court press aimed at Gov. Mark Dayton.
"I'm concerned," he told colleagues during a briefing on the topic a few days ago. "It seems to me our greatest potential is the fact that the governor supports us and wants to help us solve the flooding issue. But if others below him make the decisions ahead of time ..."
It could be that the county's factual case is stronger than its political position:
•Out of 87 counties, Scott County was one of the five least likely to support Dayton's candidacy in the 2010 election, and one of the five most likely to support his most conservative, government-spending-averse foe, Tom Emmer.
•None of the legislators in the area supported the 2005 gas tax increase from which the pool of today's flood-mitigation money ultimately flows.
Politicians from other parts of the state may not hesitate to make these points with Dayton. Beard said he doubts they'll "be that crass," face to face, but acknowledges that the message could be conveyed in other ways.
Conversely, the county is one of the state's most populous, with massive daily traffic flows across its bridges, making it hard to imagine who has a better factual case to make.
In fact, when the state announced last year that it was creating a flood-prone-roads mitigation fund, the Department of Transportation press release specifically mentioned Hwys. 41 and 101 as potential recipients.
MnDOT "will fund the mitigation program with $50 million of existing bond authority, $10 million each year through 2016," the announcement said. The agency "will develop criteria to prioritize projects across the state. The agency has sufficient bonding authority and is experiencing cost savings on construction projects from recent bids."
Scott County does enjoy clout in the form of the chairmen of not only House Transportation but also Senate Finance. And Beard said it's possible there could be some additional state bonding money next session for this purpose.
Analysis, or just politics?
When the MnDOT decision gets made even before that session starts, are we talking more politics or a strict cost-benefit analysis?
"When you work in government, everything has a political element," said MnDOT spokesman J.P. Gillach. "But we do have an administrative procedure. MnDOT's basically a big old construction organization: If we can get the funding, we'll build it."
The county faces another challenge: Of the three major crossings needing help -- Hwys. 41, 101, and 169 -- local government units in the area are pushing for 101 for major new work. That crossing would be so costly to fix, though, with a long new land bridge lifting traffic above the floodplain, that it could suck up the entire $50 million kitty.
Moreover, the 101 project worries Shakopee because it is likely to involve a year-long closure. Shakopee city officials warn that this could severely stress local businesses.
For the moment, though, the challenge is elbowing into line for flood-mitigation money.
"The governor promised to send MnDOT folks to Scott County to work with us on flood-proofing," Beard said. "That was his assurance. That hasn't happened yet, but it's not like we've clamored for it either. But we still have that favor to collect."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023