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House bonding leaves out Moorhead railroad crossing

Deputy Moorhead City Manager Scott Hutchins urges a Minnesota House committee to fund a railroad crossing Wednesday. (DON DAVIS | FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

ST. PAUL — The author of a House Republican public works plan says he could not fit in an extensively revamped Moorhead railroad crossing into this year’s legislation.

Two other railroad overpasses that cost less are in the bill.

“If you look at the price tags ... you will find that the Moorhead project is extremely expensive...” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Wednesday. “We just felt that it was important to get the other two done. For Moorhead, the price tag was just a little too high for the (bonding) capacity.”

Torkelson said the Moorhead project was left out because of its $42.3 million state cost, out of a total $57 million from all sources. A Red Wing project would cost $14.8 million and Coon Rapids’ crossing $12 million.

House Republicans rolled out a bill Wednesday that would borrow $800 million, to be repaid by the state selling bonds, that funds everything from fixing college buildings to improving parks.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton placed all three railroad projects in his  $1.4 billion public works plan.

Senate Democrats also included the three in their $1.5 billion plan, although that legislation failed by a single vote.

Torkelson, chairman of the House public works committee, said the overall bill could be considered by the full House Thursday.

The Red Wing and Coon Rapids railroad crossings are in districts served by Republican representatives.

The Moorhead one is in Democratic Rep. Ben Lien’s district.

The chairman denied that Lien’s party affiliation had any impact on the decision.

Lien did not want to accuse Torkelson of playing politics, but Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, did say that almost no projects in Democratic districts are in the bill.

“It is incredibly disappointing, incredibly frustrating,” Lien said of Moorhead being left out. “I do acknowledge the Moorhead project is expensive, but that is all the more reason we need state help.”

Lien and other Democrats complain that the overall bonding bill is too small in a good budget time with a  $900 million surplus.

“Hopefully, we will get another crack at this,” Lien said.

Deputy Moorhead City Manager Scott Hutchins told Torkelson’s committee that his city’s project is more complex than most.

“This underpass would really be the only all-weather, all-flood proof, all-purpose underpass that the city would have,” Hutchins said.

The project calls for a railroad overpass, with streets in the 21st Street area going through an underpass.

Five freight rail lines go through Moorhead, with about 85 trains a day; up to seven of those trains carry North Dakota crude oil through the city.

City officials say that by 2040 there could be more than 151 trains a day going through the city, blocking traffic, including emergency vehicles.

“It is so necessary, we believe, for the state to assist the city in financing this project,” Hutchins said.

Besides bonding funding, the city’s request to the state said Moorhead would provide $5.8 million and BNSF Railway Co. would provide $2.7 million.

Since the process started, BNSF has upped money it pledges for the project to $5.7 million. BNSF says that is double the usual railroad contribution.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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