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Senators assess bonding needs up north

Plenty of legislators claim to get “deep” into the issues and want to make sure they go beneath the “surface” to find out what’s really going on. Some take this notion more literally than others.

The Senate Capital Investment Committee is in the middle of the second leg of its four-part tour of state project ideas. The Senate group started with its northerly swing, traveling first through the Arrowhead, Iron Range and Duluth areas, where lawmakers took in sites that are both awe-inspiring and, in terms of their financial demands, ambitious.

Biggest of all, measured in dollar amounts, is a project to clean up decades of misuse and neglect at the Port of Duluth-Superior. Heavy metals released into the water there have sunk to the bottom and contaminated the port, sometimes piling up to depths of more than 10 feet. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is asking for about $25 million over two years to help alleviate related pollution problems, though that’s only a fraction of the total estimated cost, according to Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, chair of the committee.

“If you look at the vastness of that port … they said, it’s not just a few million dollars,” Stumpf said. “We’re talking tens, and hundreds of millions of millions [of dollars]. It was a little overwhelming, and staggering.”

The number is particularly audacious heading into a year when lawmakers on both sides are pitching a bonding bill of roughly $1 billion in total, with at least a quarter of that money almost automatically sucked up by projects for higher education facilities.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, GOP lead on the bonding committee, said the Duluth-area harbor needs to be addressed, and soon, though he wondered how much the state could commit, especially given the uncertain amount the project would ultimately need.

“I think the estimate of $140 million, which is the number I recall, is just the start of this journey,” Senjem said of the port issue. “Of course, we have other problems that are more obvious, and more visible.”

Chief among those, according to Senjem, is the seemingly universal need for water treatment upgrades across the state. As the committee toured the northeast, members reviewed plans for an $8.7 million wastewater treatment facility in Silver Creek. That proposal is one of many that could find their way into the 2016 bonding bill, and both Senjem and Stumpf seemed concerned about how much money would be available.

Senjem said in the short-term the issue would wind up pitting the state’s towns against one another in bids for project funding.

“Rochester even, in my case, is going to need $120 million to meet phosphorus regulations,” Senjem said. “It’s literally a statewide issue.”

Stumpf said the state can often “do pretty well” by leveraging its own contributions with federal funding, especially if the money is designated through the Public Facilities Authority (PFA). If Stumpf succeeds in creating a slightly larger bonding bill than some expect, he might look to devote two years’ worth of funds to the PFA, which could attract federal matching funds to keep local projects advancing. The PFA’s combined request came in at a lofty $67 million for 2016, and again in 2017.

“There are many, many, many cities that need this,” Stumpf said of water treatment. “It’s a long list of communities, and it takes time. We’re going to try to keep as many of those communities receiving help, as soon as they’re … getting ready to use it.”

Somewhat more site-specific was a request from the Glensheen Mansion, an enormous, early-20th century estate on Lake Superior, now operated as a tourism and educational site by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The mansion’s somewhat macabre history — it was the site of a double-murder, apparently arranged by family members — does not detract from its status as an architectural marvel, and it houses many significant artworks.

But the mansion has fallen into disrepair, and Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, said the Legislature should consider at least partial funding, because the building’s nagging upkeep matters, tabbed at a total of $26 million, could lead to even more costly structural failures.

“The danger is, if the stairs are not shored up, and the footings aren’t shored up, there could be some damage to the entire wall that holds up the very long chimney,” Scalze said, commenting on a roughly $8 million element of the Glensheen request.

Both Scalze and Senjem were also taken with the group’s trip to the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The site serves dual roles, as both a historic and tourist site, demonstrating the first iron ore mine opened in the state, and, presently, as a high-tech laboratory for particle physics. Wood once implanted underground to help stabilize the mine shaft caught fire several years ago, and the site is requesting state aid to help restore the damaged path with concrete.

“Given the uniqueness of that place, and what’s happening of the bottom of it, with the lab work … it’s going to rise to the top of the list,” Senjem said. “I would be surprised if that doesn’t make the [bonding] bill.”

Senjem said he was aware that, in passing through the northeast area, the committee was reviewing projects that could be good news for districts represented by Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, a powerful committee member, or Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who led a tour of Lake Vermilion State Park, literally in his own backyard. But Senjem said in the long run, projects “tend to separate themselves out,” especially after in-person tours taken by both chambers, and said more overt political brokering is minimal.

“In some cases, it probably has been directed toward specific individuals, but that’s the world we live in, and work in,” Senjem said. Laughing, he added: “My feeling is, if you don’t like it, win the majority.”


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