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Senate panel visits Bemidji bonding sites

Sen. Paul Koering, left, R-Camp Ripley, asks a question of city officials about a Paul Bunyan Trail bridge project on Wednesday as the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee visited Bemidji. At right is Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

An early public works bill would create jobs sooner, says the chairman of a Minnesota Senate panel which decides capital bonding.

"There's going to be over $3 billion in requests and probably less than a billion granted," Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Fergus Falls, chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, said Wednesday in an interview.

Langseth would like to see a $1 billion bonding bill, which would put Minnesotans to work constructing public buildings and other public infrastructure.

Langseth and his House counterpart, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who was in Bemidji earlier this month with her panel, will have to work out a bonding bill with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is signaling a bill of about $700 million.

"Even if he were willing to go higher, he'd at least start at a lower level," Langseth said.

"Some people say how can you spend money at a time like this?" he said. "This is the time to bond and build. We get so much more for our money, put people to work who wouldn't be working. We really do want a substantial bonding bill."

The House and Senate would like early agreement on a bonding bill, said Langseth, with the Legislature convening in February.

On weeklong tour of bonding sites in central and northwestern Minnesota, the Senate Capital Investment Committee on Wednesday toured the Headwaters Science Center, walked to Bemidji City Hall for city and Beltrami County presentations and did a drive-by tour of the Bemidji Regional Event Center construction.

Their last stop was at Bemidji State University to hear BSU and Northwest Tech bonding requests.

Requests range from $13 million toward a new $26.1 million Headwaters Science Center to $1 million for a $1.4 million Paul Bunyan Trail Bridge over state Highway 197 to complete the trail over seven lanes of traffic.

Several lawmakers said they like the idea of a new Headwaters Science Center next to the Beltrami History Center, but said the price tag was quite steep for this economy.

"The trail is probably the most intriguing because it does complete that Paul Bunyan Trail, and it ties into your economic development with the event center," Langseth said. "And it isn't very much money."

For other Bemidji requests, "you're talking a lot of money, particularly the Science Center," he added. "We were over there and we love that sort of thing, but $26 million and asking us for $13 million ..."

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, likes the idea of a regional science center in Bemidji.

"Over here it's exciting, because when you go to the science museum and the proposal they're talking about and see all the children in there learning with their hands on, it's pretty exciting," Stumpf said in an interview. "You know that is a very successful project and I hope we can get those kinds of projects funded because they really do have a long-term impact."

Langseth has a big job ahead of him, Stumpf said. "And so do those of us serving on that committee in hoping we can have a fairly large bonding bill this year -- somewhere around $1 billion -- so that we can get some jobs created across the state, both in urban and rural areas."

He'd also like early action on bonding, the major chore of the 2010 session. "Because it's an election year, I think all of us would lilke to get out early, too."

Stumpf said some of the largest needs are in the Red River Valley with flood mitigation and flood impoundment projects.

Craig Gray, city engineer, told the panel that some 24,000 cars a day pass the area where the trail bridge is sought, and that the bridge would be multi-modal with snowmobile traffic in winter and bikes, pedestrians, skaters, etc., in the summer.

The city has a design engineer and believes it could get the project done sooner than going through the state Department of Natural Resources, Gray said. Once done, the bridge would be turned over to the DNR as one of its trail bridges for maintenance.

Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, asked about federal funding availability, and said Langseth and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, had found funding for a trail bridge in Brainerd. He said, however, that constituents were "P.O.'d" about how quickly funding came for the project with Oberstar's name attached to it.

The Bemidji project is warranted as a trail connector and an economic development tool, said Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

"With this last piece finished, this will be the longest contiguous paved trail in the state," she said of the Brainerd to Bemidji Paul Bunyan Trail. "It's really an ideal opportunity to promote tourism for all the communities along the trail. ... We need to get this finished."

The city is seeking federal funding, and both Oberstar and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, have included it as their earmarks in the next major transportation bill, Rita Albrecht, city community development director, said. That bill probably won't be debated until next summer.

Also at the City Hall briefing, Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp told the panel that the county is seeking $1.99 million in state bonding toward a $3.98 million jail efficiency project geared to make the 22-year-old jail more energy efficient, safe for inmates and staff and reallocate space.

"Even though this is a jail project, and typically you wouldn't get involved in a local jail project, there's a regional aspect to this jail that's different than any other one probably in the state," Hodapp said.

He listed off a number of agencies that make use of the county's jail, including three area American Indian tribal police departments, the FBI and now a Border Patrol agent has been stationed in Bemidji with more to come.

"The project itself is energy savings, efficiency, reallocation of space in existing footprint areas," Hodapp said. "It's mainly an energy project to save energy and upgrade our facilities."

Koering was skeptical, however, noting that Cass and Crow Wing counties built a $60 million jail totally out of taxpayer dollars and now is under capacity, forcing the closure of one wing.

"If the bonding committee would do this (fund Beltrami), how do I explain that to Crow Wing County and Cass County when they actually had to pay for their own jail?" he said.

"We paid for our own jail too," said Hodapp. "Ours is an older facility that is simply in need of some upgrades." The jial does not house prisoners from other counties, he added. "We're talking about a local jail that is impacted by the fact that Bemidji, located where it is, and being the center hub of the area where there are all these state and federal resources that have been placed here."

BSU's requests include $3.4 million in planning and design funds for relocated the Business Department and renovating Memorial Hall, and funding for campus maintenance such as roof repair. Northwest Tech seeks funding for industrial arts labs.

An ongoing BSU request is $2 million to reimburse the BSU Foundation which purchased the former Bemidji High School property for future campus expansion. It has been vetoed three times.

About 35 percent of a bonding bill is dedicated to higher education infrastructure, Langseth said. Both the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities requests exceed that level.

Pawlenty has vetoed a number of higher ed requests last year and now is the time to build, Langseth said.

Asked about the BSU land acquisition request, Langseth said he was disappointed that it ended up 24th on MnSCU's priority list.

"How do you go by their list and yet fund everything?" Langseth said. "Land acquisition doesn't really create jobs at the time but a lot of times it's a timing factor. You want to get a hold of something so you can move on."

Langseth said the committee "won't rule that out, but it would have been nice if it were 15th or16th."