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Good news, bad news for transportation projects

The 91-year-old Franklin Avenue bridge in Minneapolis is getting $11.75 million in state bonding money for a rehab project. Construction is expected to start in 2015. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

The 91-year-old Franklin Avenue bridge in Minneapolis is getting $11.75 million in state bonding money for a rehab project. Construction is expected to start in 2015. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

For fans of road and bridge improvements, the 2014 legislative session was sort of like winning the consolation prize instead of the big stuffed animal in the ring-toss game at the State Fair.

A combination of state bonding and cash will deliver $87 million for local roads and bridges, including $29 million to improve access to the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site in Arden Hills and $11.75 million to restore the Franklin Avenue bridge in Minneapolis.

But the big prize eluded transportation backers, as the Legislature failed to pass a comprehensive transportation spending bill that would have forked over roughly $750 million a year in new funding.

“Overall, we are disappointed that the funding bill that was passed by the House and Senate transportation committees didn’t go farther,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

The session, which saw passage of an $846 million bonding bill and a separate $200 million supplemental cash bill, wasn’t a complete bust for road, bridge and transit backers.

The bonding and cash bills offer about $160 million for all modes of transportation, which is “definitely more than we have seen in the past,” Donahoe said.

The bonding and cash bills combined include about $54 million for local roads. That’s much more than usual for a capital investment bill, according to Scott Peterson, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s government affairs director.

The 2012 bonding bill, for example, had $10 million for local roads.

Peterson said it’s not unusual for the Legislature to identify certain projects for funding in the local road and bridge programs. Beyond that, MnDOT’s State Aid for Local Transportation Division manages a program that distributes the money to projects.

The state aid division allocates funds based on a number of factors, including the condition of the bridge or road, the traffic volume, availability of federal funds, and how soon it’s ready to be constructed, Peterson said.

“We work closely with county engineers across the state, and city engineers, to make sure we get the right bridges,” he added. “There are always way more bridges on the list waiting for funding” than there are available funds.

This year’s winners in the local roads and bridges sweepstakes include Hennepin, Anoka and Ramsey counties, and the city of Richfield.

The bonding bill offers $12.257 million for the local bridge program. Of that total, Hennepin County is getting $11.75 million to rehab the 91-year-old Franklin Avenue bridge, assuming a $16.5 million match from non-state sources.

As Finance & Commerce reported in February, the rehab of the 1,054-foot-long Franklin Avenue bridge is scheduled to start in spring 2015 and end in fall 2016.

The bonding bill also offers grants in unspecified dollar amounts to Anoka County for the Highway 10-Armstrong Boulevard project, and to the city of Richfield for a 77th Street underpass project at Cedar Avenue.

As Finance & Commerce reported in September, the Richfield project would improve access to a potentially hot development area near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington.

In addition, the bonding bill puts $19.5 million toward a project that will reroute Highway 53 between Virginia and Eveleth. The highway has to be moved because part of the road is on land owned by mining companies, which now need access to the land.

The supplemental cash bill also allocates $20.743 million for local bridge rehabs and replacements and $30 million for local roads, including $29 million for the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant redevelopment effort in Arden Hills.

The TCAAP improvements will include a new bridge with pedestrian trails at Interstate 35W and Highway 96, interior access roads and new interchanges.

Ramsey County purchased the 427-acre TCAAP site in 2013. The city of Arden Hills and Ramsey County are heading up demolition and cleanup efforts there and working on a redevelopment plan that envisions residential, commercial and open spaces.

The ill-fated transportation funding bill would have been paid for with an increase in the metro sales tax, a sales tax on fuel at the wholesale level, and a sales tax on leased vehicles.

Despite a big push from transportation lobbyists, the transportation bill failed to catch on with groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Early in the session, the chamber made it clear that other issues were more pressing to its members.

In a webinar on Tuesday, the chamber called for “real, measurable progress on efficiencies before new taxes.” Increased efficiencies could add $50 million to the construction budget, the chamber said.

Donahoe praised the 2014 Legislature for coming up with some one-time funding to deal with bad roads and bridges.

“But overall, we still feel like transportation has unfinished business from this session and the last session,” she said.

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