Fight continues to cut into Robert Street price tag

Bills introduced by local lawmakers to offset West St. Paul’s costs

The reconstruction of Robert Street in West St. Paul has been mostly complete for some time, but the work isn’t done. Legislators representing the city are once again pushing for local government aid payments from the state to help cover some of the roughly $26 million owed by the city for the work.

Bills in the Minnesota House and Senate, HF 461 and SF 683, are asking for a one-time grant of $3.68 million for the city and an increase of aid payable 2020 through 2034 from $1 million to $1.84 million.

Sen. Matt Klein, DFL District 52, authored the Senate bill, while State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL District 52A, is joined by Reps. Laurie Halverson and Fue Lee in authoring the House bill.

 

Recouping the cost

West St. Paul City Manager Ryan Schroeder said the overall estimated cost of the Robert Street work is $46 million. A federal grant covered roughly $8 million of the cost, while a state grant covered about another $8 million, with other jurisdictions including Dakota County and St. Paul Water paying around $4 million. West St. Paul is currently on the hook for approximately $26 million, with around $21 million of that being accrued debt. 

Hansen has introduced similar bills before and said he did so again because the residents of West St. Paul are still paying for Robert Street, which is a state highway. 

The 2019 bill is slightly different than previous bills introduced. Hansen said it has an upfront payment, as well as ongoing payments over a number of years.

The $3.68 million isn’t a random or made up number, Hansen said — it’s the cost of traffic control lights on Robert Street. He said such things are generally paid for by the state on a state highway, and that it’s the minimum that the state should immediately chip in.

“We fixed a state highway all by ourselves because time was pressing and it needed to be done,” Klein said. “The tax burden of that has fallen entirely on the taxpayers of West St. Paul, when it is a state highway.”

 

Sooner rather than later

When work on Robert Street started in 2015, Klein said for it to get state funding a bill would have needed to have been passed then. At the time however, the project was under the clock — the street was in “total despair,” and it needed to be fixed urgently. There was also the federal grant, which was time sensitive.

West St. Paul Mayor Dave Napier said the corridor was in such a rough shape it was having a negative impact on the community.

“Robert Street is considered an economic engine for West St. Paul. We’re very fortunate to have that two-mile stretch of retail,” said Napier. “With that being said, businesses were leaving at a rapid pace. The street was in such bad shape, ambulances would not even use it to get downtown.”

Napier said the Minnesota Department of Transportation did a large study on the road and determined Robert Street was in the bottom 5 percent of all state highways in safety and condition.

Even with that, Napier said the project was not on MnDOT’s immediate schedule for improvements, so the city went ahead with the project while attempting to get MnDOT to support it at a higher level, something that never happened.

The debt from the Robert Street rebuild is putting other city projects on hold. Napier said the city’s police station is in desperate need of upgrades, but the cash isn’t there to do them.

Napier credited Hansen and Klein for continuing to work for West St. Paul to help recoup Robert Street costs.

When Robert Street bills were introduced last session, Republicans held both the House and Senate, and Klein said the new DFL House majority might help their chances this time around.

“Obviously, that dynamic has changed significantly,” he said. “It is now a divided Legislature, so maybe we’ll have a little more force.”

 

Passing a bill

In both the House and Senate, the Robert Street bills will have to go through hearings in each chamber’s Tax Committee. Klein said with Hansen authoring the bill and being a part of the majority in the House, it is likely to get a hearing. 

Klein said he has asked for a hearing in the Senate, but has not received one so far. 

If the bills get through committee and onto the floor, they would be part of omnibus tax bills that come at the end of session. 

Hansen said he is hopeful to get the bills passed this year. 

 

–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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