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With no state bonding bill, Northland projects now are in limbo

Almost everyone at the state Capitol this year thought it was a good idea to invest $12.7 million of state money to help clean up additional polluted hotspots and restore habitat on the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth.

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Minnesota state Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury, left, looks at a document Friday, May 6, 2016, during negotiations about transportation funding. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Almost everyone at the state Capitol this year thought it was a good idea to invest $12.7 million of state money to help clean up additional polluted hotspots and restore habitat on the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth.

The state was going to pay for the project out of the every-other-year construction/bonding bill, under which the state pays back investors over time to build worthwhile projects now. That state money would attract another $25 million in federal Great Lakes cleanup funding and help remove the Twin Ports harbor from the federal list of polluted areas.

But when the Legislature's bonding bill died amid political rancor and emotion early Monday, the St. Louis River cleanup project died too, for now, along with hundreds of other projects across the state.

Those projects include the city of Duluth's request for $21 million to replace a faltering steam heat system in downtown Duluth with a new, more-efficient closed-loop network of pipes carrying hot water. The project was less certain at the start the legislative session but seemed to be gaining steam in recent weeks.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said she sent e-mails and called key lawmakers Monday urging they support a special session to pass a bonding/construction bill.

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Both Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said in the early hours of Monday, between blaming each other for the demise of the bill, that they hope Gov. Mark Dayton will consider a special session. Dayton said Monday afternoon that he wanted to wait for emotions to calm before making a decision on a special session.

"I've been on the phone today with the governor's office and Sen. Bakk's and others asking them to get their work done for Minnesota," Larson said. "I'm doing what I can to encourage a special session. This would be such a shame, not just for us but for all of Minnesota, to leave these projects" hanging.

Larson said it's too early to say what the delay might mean for the big downtown Duluth project that would happen in conjunction with a reconstruction of Superior Street.

State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, said there were too many mistakes in the House bill to vote for it, but said a special session is a possibility.

"I think they have to do something," Schultz said. "But the way the bill had discrepancies in it... We couldn't support what was being voted on. We weren't sure what was really in the bill."

Bonding bill proposals had slated some $8.1 million to help pay for a combined heat and power system running on biogas produced in the sewage treatment process at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, to make the facility nearly energy self-sufficient. The district was ready to pay just under two-thirds of the project if the state would add one-third.

"We were very ready to go. So no bonding bill means this project likely waits two years until there is a bonding bill," said Marianne Bohren, WLSSD executive director. "We were counting on the state's 35 percent to move the project forward."

The project would have incurred significant savings in energy costs that could have been passed on to consumers. The delay also means the WLSSD will have to pay more for the project at a later date.

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"It means higher rates for our customers the longer this has to to wait," she said.

Among other funding in doubt after the failure of the bonding bill:

• All of Gov. Mark Dayton's $220 million clean water protection package, including multi-million dollar water and sewer upgrades for Rice Lake, Scanlon, Chisholm, Ely, Keewatin, Deer River, Warba and Kabetogama. The projects would include work to extend or replace water mains and sewer lines and improve water and sewage treatment plants.

• More than $21 million in funding for a new Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

• Somewhere between $1 million and $26 million to start and possibly finish critical repairs to Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, owned and operated by UMD.

• Some $8 million planned for the Essentia Health Regional Wellness Center project in Hermantown to serve southern St. Louis County

• $5.9 million for runway improvements at Duluth International Airport, a critical component to a mostly federally-funded runway repaving project. The state money would have helped speed up the project, needed for commercial flights and Minnesota Air National Guard fighter jets, as well as account for needs of AAR to keep passenger jets coming to its aircraft repair and maintenance base at the airport.

• $10 million to reconfigure the campus at Hibbing Community College

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• $4 million for Miners Memorial Community Center in Virginia

• $2 million for the Gitchi-Gami State Trail along the North Shore

• $8 million for Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park

• $1.9 million for improvements to the Lake Superior Zoo

• $1.7 million to the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority for the Mesabi Trail

• $3 million for improvements at the International Falls-Koochiching County Airport

• $3.4 million for the U.S. Highway 53 relocation project in Virginia; the city of Virginia had faced a cost overrun of that amount for the associated relocation of lines that provide gas, water and sewer service to the Midway neighborhood

• $6.2 million for the Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Project

• $2.9 million for the Northeast Regional Corrections Center just outside Duluth

• $1.9 million for the Moose Lake Correctional Facility

• $2 million for the Togo Correctional Facility

• $1.7 million for the Black Beach Campground in Silver Bay

• $1.5 million for the Willow River Correctional Facility

• $763,000 for a small-craft harbor facility in Two Harbors.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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