by CHRIS ROGERS
Goodview City Administrator Dan Matejka has been waiting for this moment for the last three years. Matejka was almost ready to give up, but now a bill to fund the creation of a train-horn-free zone in Goodview and Minnesota City is on Governor Mark Dayton’s desk. All Dayton has to do is sign it.
Officials in Wabasha, La Crescent, and Preston are similarly excited. In addition to $330,000 for Goodview’s whistle-free zone, this year’s bonding bill includes $8 million for expanding the National Eagle Center and upgrading Wabasha’s riverfront, $10.2 million toward the construction of a Veterans Home in Preston, and $2.5 million for a pedestrian and bicycle overpass bridge in La Crescent.
While the Democratic governor and Republican Legislature were bitterly divided over budget and tax bills, which Dayton has vowed to veto, the governor has made no such pronouncements about the bonding bill. In a press conference this week, the governor said he needed to review the bill’s details more closely before deciding whether to sign it.
“I’m pretty confident that the governor will sign the bonding bill,” Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) said. Miller helped Rochester Senator Dave Senjem (R-Rochester) craft the $1.5-billion bill, and although it includes millions of dollars for the kind of parks, trails, and art center projects conservatives sometimes ridicule, Miller said it was a good bill. “I’d say all the projects in the bonding bill are worthy and good projects,” he stated. “While there are some parks and trails in this bonding bill, which are important to a lot of communities, the major focus of this bonding bill is certainly on roads and bridges, sewer and water, and money for our higher education institutions,” Miller added.
The La Crescent pedestrian and bicycle bridge is not just the final piece of the city’s Wagon Wheel bicycle trail, it is also a piece of basic infrastructure to connect homes and businesses separated by Highway 61, Miller continued. He said he would not take his own children across the current crosswalk. “It is not the safest crossing right now,” Miller added.
“We are very proud that the governor, House, and Senate have all recognized the uniqueness of Wabasha and what it has to offer,” National Eagle Center Development Director Andrea Chapman said. Funding for the Eagle Center expansion was part of Dayton’s original proposal, too, and if he signs the final bonding bill, the Eagle Center will be halfway to raising the $16 million needed to renovate historic buildings on Main Street and expand the Eagle Center’s main building along the river. The expansion would add a larger auditorium for visitors to see live eagles face-to-face, more space to care for a larger team of eagle ambassadors, and a big, new collection of art and artificats showcasing eagles in American culture. Because the current auditorium is often at capacity, the center cannot offer eagle demonstrations to some of its visitors, Chapman said. “The demand for the program far outweighs the space we have available. So we’ll be able to give that experience to more people,” she explained. If the bonding bill is approved, the center is planning a fundraising campaign for the rest of the funding.
In Goodview, the proposed $330,000 project would make various small improvements to the five railroad crossings — mainly lengthening the medians on either side of existing crossing arms so that drivers cannot try to circumvent the lowered arms. With those minor improvements, trains could run without sounding their horns in Goodview and Minnesota City. Some sleepless residents have been wishing for that for years. “This puts us the closest we’ve come yet to succeeding at the legislature,” Matejka said. Still, he added, “Anything can happen.”
There is one project that did not make it into any bill this session: the proposed second daily Amtrak train. The Minnesota Department of Transportation had sought $4 million to finish planning and design for a new train that would double the daily Amtrak frequency between the Twin Cities and Chicago, providing more travel time options and more reliably on-time service. Local officials said the project would be great for Winona and Winona County and encouraged local citizens to support it.
“Unfortunately that piece of legislation did not make it in,” Miller said. “Passenger rail is not a real popular topic at the legislature. I think when you say passenger rail I think a lot of legislators put Amtrak passenger rail in with light rail in the metro area, and because of that, it’s not a real popular topic in the legislature and we just couldn’t gain enough support,” he explained. Miller added, “Next year will be a new legislature — at least a new House of Representatives and a new governor … We’ll take another shot at it next year, and hopefully we’ll gain the support we need to get it funded.”