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A12-0125 State v. Ballesteros (Clay County)

House members tour bond-request sites

One state asset changed entirely, and apparently grew in its value, thanks largely to decades of neglect, and now its benefactors want a little boost from the Legislature.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, was impressed by the natural regeneration that had taken place around the Crosby area, where a return of vegetation around abandoned mines has created a pristine setting for outdoors activities, including scuba diving and mountain biking.

On his first visit, Torkelson took the opportunity to ride a fat-tire mountain bike for the first time in his life.

“The Cuyuna bike park — I’m not sure what it’s even called — but, it continues to develop … and they demonstrated a lot of community support for an expansion,” Torkelson said.

The Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area was among a small group of projects previously unknown to Torkelson, who led a three-day tour of northwestern Minnesota with members of the House Capital Investment Committee this past week. Other projects, like the many requests that originate from the state’s college campuses, were either existing or perennial concepts.

The Cuyuna trails system also made an impression on Torkelson’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who viewed it as an example of how money for what seems like seasonal or limited-use projects can help a local economy through better quality of life.

“It’s coming to be nationally recognized, and they’re getting tourists from Italy,” Hausman said. “We met a physician who moved [to the Crosby area] from New York because of the bike trails along there.”

The price tag on the Cuyuna bonding request, $4.2 million, is fairly minor when compared to other ideas the committee reviewed on its tour. First on the agenda, starting Tuesday morning, was a tour of the St. Cloud Correctional Facility, where prison management is seeking a total of $18.5 million for a new intake facility, and another $14 million for repair of the aging brick wall around the prison grounds.

Torkelson said he had not realized before visiting St. Cloud that the prison was responsible for processing every inmate in a Minnesota state facility, causing something of a traffic jam.

“It seemed pretty obvious they have a limited amount of space there,” Torkelson said.

The project was a part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding request earlier this year, but did not make the cut as part of the capital investment bill passed in the June special session. Instead, that bill targeted chunks of money toward Capitol renovations ($32 million), avian flu responses and research ($27 million) and higher education, with a roughly $18 million appropriation for a St. Paul College science laboratory leading the pack.

The committee’s tour featured stops at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota State University-Mankato and University of Minnesota-Crookston, among other higher education sites. None of those schools had a specific project on Dayton’s wish list earlier this year, nor did any of the larger Minnesota Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system campuses. Instead, Dayton favored asset preservation work for the state’s larger schools, with smaller construction allotments for a number of community and technical colleges.

Torkelson said asset preservation across a number of different categories is a top priority of his, and said he shares that thinking with Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, the Senate DFL leader on bonding legislation.

“The Senate and I both agree that taking care of what we have already has to be a part of our work,” he said.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, is not a member of the committee but tagged along during its tour of Camp Ripley, which is in his district. Kresha was there to show support for a $3.1 million railroad disaster training ground proposal. If constructed, the location would be used by first responders, railroad companies and state agency managers to plan for derailment of a freight train transporting oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields.

“A tragedy that big would require so many agencies to respond,” Kresha said. “With as much heightened awareness as there is around trains, and possible disasters, I think the idea was very well received [by the committee].”

Two of the more expensive items seen on the tour also dealt with railroad safety: Dayton is pushing for the support of four rail-grade crossings in different high-traffic areas, at a total cost of more than $60 million. Those projects would also rely on some investment from local governments, and possibly from railroad companies.

Hausman noted that the committee did not have to imagine how a new crossing might improve traffic and safety; during their visit to the Coon Rapids site, two trains passed by simultaneously, backing-up traffic in either direction for several minutes.

“While we’re standing there, we heard from local police and fire what happens when a train is blocking the crossing, and they can’t get to other side for a 911 call,” Hausman said. “This was when two trains passed, and they have something like 86 or 87 a day.”

She was somewhat less inclined to throw support behind ideas associated with local nonprofit organizations in Crookston and Bemidji, pointing out that, if those nonprofits fail to deliver services as promised, local government partners could be forced to take over the entire operation, and cover any outstanding expenses.

Torkelson made it clear that the committee was not “making any promises,” and added that the three-day excursion was the first of five regional travel itineraries planned before the 2016 session.

“Coming into this next session, it’s obvious there are three major bills,” Torkelson said. “There’s transportation, taxes and bonding. And those three are going to be interrelated, as negotiations go forward between the three branches of government.”

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