Wright board reluctantly approves I-94 corridor funding

Potter: ‘Not the time to take our foot off the throttle’

by John Holler

Contributing Writer

In 2013, the Wright County Board of Commissioners approved giving $8,000 to the I-94 Corridor Coalition in hopes of getting some bang for the buck in the group’s lobbying effort to get federal funding for a significant expansion project.

To the surprise of many, the effort got approval for up to $46 million in funding. But, at the Jan. 28 meeting of the county board, the commissioners were posed with the question of whether they should continue funding the lobbying effort.

The issue of county funding for the I-94 Corridor Coalition first came up at the Dec. 17 meeting of the county board. In a letter from the coalition, the county was asked to pay an additional $8,000 for what was termed “membership dues.” It was that term that got the item laid over and set for discussion at the Jan. 28 meeting.

St. Michael City Administrator Steve Bot, the coalition’s chairman of the board of directors, told the commissioners that the efforts made in 2013 were unprecedented and need to be continued. With a groundswell of support from lobbying efforts in St. Paul, the I-94 expansion between Rogers and St. Michael quickly became a reality and between $35-46 million in funding was earmarked by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

“Three months earlier, we weren’t even on MnDOT’s 20-year plan — period,” Bot said. “We were able to get a project that will benefit Wright County from St. Michael to Clearwater.”

While the return on the investment was enormous, the commissioners had some issues with the one-time contribution being viewed as annual membership dues. The county board set a precedent in 2001 by contributing $10,000 to the Highway 55 Coalition and $1,000 a year since 2003. In 2010, the county pledged $5,000 to the I-94 coalition effort and added $8,000 in 2013. Commissioner Pat Sawatzke wanted to make it clear that any contribution from the county shouldn’t be viewed as an annual membership or have any guarantee of future funding.

“Who decided that $8,000 was annual dues?” Sawatzke asked. “That was a contribution because we hadn’t contributed to the effort for three years. I don’t believe that counts as an annual membership amount.”

Commissioners Mark Daleiden and Charlie Borrell both stated they find the process of a local government paying money to lobby its own state government is outrageous. Borrell asked if there is really a need for continued lobbying because the odds are against the I-94 project getting immediate funding to expand the road from St. Michael to Monticello. Bot said that, while the project was approved in 2013, it hasn’t been finalized and groups like the Met Council are trying to get some of the funding money earmarked for the I-94 project.

“Standing here a year ago, there was no way I could have predicted we would be this successful,” Bot said. “But, this isn’t in the bag yet. We have the ball in our hands, but people like the Met Council are trying to knock it out of our hands. We have positive momentum going right now, but it’s not completed yet.”

Sawatzke made a motion to provide $7,500 in funding, changing the amount so it was clear that the county wasn’t going to make annual $8,000 membership payments. The motion passed 4-1. Commissioner Mike Potter voted against the motion, saying that he believes the county should continue funding the project and this isn’t the time to reduce or cut off funding.

“Look what was accomplished last year,” Potter said. “This is not the time to take our foot off the throttle. If we lay in the weeds now, we will go off the radar. It will be very difficult to get back into the running again if we don’t keep pushing to get this project done up to Monticello and beyond.”

In other items on the Jan. 28 agenda, the board:

AUTHORIZED Joe Jacobs of the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District to proceed with developing a program to prevent aquatic invasive species from entering county lakes. Jacobs said the program would seek funding help to acquire a decontamination unit with high pressure heated water hoses to decontaminate boats that are carrying invasive species like zebra mussels.That plan is to centrally locate the unit in between high-traffic lakes that have yet to be invaded by zebra mussels, including Lake Sylvia, Sugar Lake, Clearwater Lake, Lake Pleasant and Cedar Lake.

APPROVED a detour agreement for increased traffic that will result from the closing of the exit ramps to Hwy. 25 in Monticello. Traffic will be diverted to CSAH 8, CSAH 18 and CSAH 75 for those who need to exit I-94 in Monticello. The exit ramps are expected to be closed from May to September.

APPROVED a separate detour agreement for construction of Hwy. 25 in Watertown. A resurfacing project on the highway is scheduled to get underway in late April or early May and run through July.

RATIFIED a four-year contract with Minnesota Counties Computer Cooperative. The county needs to make computer upgrades to the human resources software system because new computers can’t read the older files from the program and require updating.

AUTHORIZED signatures on being the sponsor for a pair of cities looking to access federal funding for transportation projects. Both the cities of Annandale and Hanover are seeking federal funding for trail projects under the T.A.P. (Transportation Alternatives Program) funding source. The municipalities will pay the entire local share for the projects, but need the county to serve as the sponsoring agent to handle federal grant funds.

APPROVED the claims, which included a charge for typewriter maintenance. Daleiden asked for rationale because he didn’t believe anyone used typewriters anymore. In fact, several departments still use typewriters for forms that aren’t formatted into the county’s computer system and are still filled out manually on typewriters.