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Bonding bill a step forward for roads funding, Dayton says

Deb Gau on June 1, 2018

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton had some positive things to say about funding for regional highways being part of the $1.5 billion bonding bill he signed Wednesday. The bonding money will help bring some much-needed expansions to U.S. Highway 14 and Minnesota Highway 23, he said. 

“It’s another step forward,” Dayton said of the projects. However, Dayton said there’s still a long way to go to maintain Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure.

Dayton spoke about the transportation funding on Thursday, during a conference call with members of the press. Part of the bonding bill Dayton signed is a total of $400 million in funding for the Corridors of Commerce program. That money will help expand Highway 14 from two lanes to four lanes between Owatonna and Dodge Center, and fill in gaps along Highway 23 to create a continuous four-lane roadway from Willmar to St. Cloud.

The projects will improve traffic flow on key regional highways — to really get the benefit of a four-lane roadway, it can’t be broken up into unconnected segments, Dayton said.

He said the bonding money will also help correct the balance of Metro and Greater Minnesota projects in the Corridors of Commerce program this year. Earlier this spring, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced four Corridors of Commerce projects that were all in or near the Twin Cities metro area.

Dayton said part of the problem with this year’s Corridors of Commerce funding was a “very tight formula” for awarding projects. The formula, created by the Legislature, “took any discretion away from MnDOT,” Dayton said.

“We’ve corrected that failure from a year ago,” Dayton said. But even with the additional bonding money, there’s still a long way to go. Dayton said more than 170 Corridors of Commerce applications came in from around the state this year, and the vast majority didn’t get funding.

Dayton said the bonding bill also neglected funding for mass transit. 

“It’s very short-sighted, very disappointing,” he said. 

A lot of the discussion with Dayton on Thursday focused on the bonding bill, which authorizes around $1.5 billion in public construction projects around Minnesota.

While Dayton said most of the projects included in the bonding bill were good ones, he signed the bill in spite of “a number of deficiencies” in it. Dayton said he wasn’t happy with state legislators limiting the amount of funding in the bill that would come from the sale general obligation bonds.

“We are still seriously underfunding improvements we need to make,”especially for the upkeep of state universities and college campuses, state buildings and parks, Dayton said. 

A total of $825 million in the bonding bill will come from general obligation bonds, but Dayton said that amount was too low. 

“The people of Minnesota won’t be well served,” he said. 

Among the projects included in the bonding bill is $45 million statewide dedicated to Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) funds, for the upkeep of public colleges and universities. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the bonding bill also includes $25 million for schools to enhance security, and $90 million for the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to fix ailing buildings.

Dayton said he was in favor of part of the bonding bill dedicated to funding regional mental health treatment facilities. The bill includes a total of $28.1 million for construction of mental health crisis centers.

“I strongly support it,” Dayton said. The need for mental health services is often greater than what’s available in many Minnesota communities, he said.

“We’re seeing an overflow now, where people are in county jails with mental illness,” Dayton said. The regional centers could help more people get appropriate help.