BY GABE LICHT
MAPLE PLAIN, MN When the bonding bill failed to pass the legislature before the end of the legislative session, the provision to provide $15 million in improvements to Highway 12 failed, as well.
Hopes for the funding are not dead, however, as Republican leaders, Wednesday, called for a special session, and Gov. Mark Dayton said he is open to the possibility.
If a special session is called, and a bonding bill is passed, it would provide funding for three problem spots along the deadliest highway in the state, which has claimed 23 lives in five years.
At 11:46 p.m. Sunday, May 22, just 14 minutes before the constitutional end to the session, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bonding bill on a vote of 91 to 39.
According to Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, the bill that DFL senators agreed to included $727 million for roads and bridges, such as the Highway 12 projects, and $842 million overall for transportation-related projects.
“The deadline forces people to come together to reach compromise,” Daudt said during a press conference along Highway 12 in Maple Plain. “Our bill did that. It was a good bill. It would have put funding into projects like this.”
When the bill reached the Senate, the compromise appeared to break down.
“We actually were reading the bill before the House cleared the bonding bill for the Senate,” Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound. “When we hit the Senate floor, there was a handwritten amendment on our desks from Sen. (Ron) Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), amending Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) funding into the bonding bill. Senator Latz knew, as did the entire Senate DFL, that this amendment would force the bill back to the house. They also knew that the House GOP, and their leadership, has been against any funding for SWLRT.”
Despite strong opposition to SWLRT, Osmek said he “painfully hit the green button because this was the last train out of the station.”
The bill exited the Senate chamber, but the House was adjourning, so Senators tried to remove the amendment, so that the House would vote for the bill.
“But the DFL adjourned before we could complete the voting,” Osmek said.
Reactions to what happened
“Most of you woke up this morning and heard the horrible news the bonding bill was not passed by our legislature last night,” West Hennepin Public Safety Chief Gary Kroells, who serves as chair of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition, said Monday, May 23. “As we all know this means no funding for safety improvements along Highway 12 in Hennepin County. I, along with you, am very disappointed and frustrated an agreement could not be reached to protect the lives of people traveling on Highway 12 each and every day.”
“Let’s hope another person doesn’t need to die on Highway 12 to get the funding needed to save lives,” Kroells added later.
Liz Squire, whose sister, Chelsea Langhans, was killed in a head-on crash on the Long Lake bypass where a barrier has been proposed, called the failure to pass Highway 12 improvements unacceptable.
“Both parties need to accept blame for their roles in this failure,” Squire said. “I hope the governor calls for a special session, and that all of our senators and representatives can focus on getting this fixed, instead of focusing on pinning blame on their counterparts across the aisle.”
She repeated that call during a Wednesday morning press conference.
“This is not the time for bickering and partisan politics,” Squire said. “This is the time for action. We have options to make this road safer. We need to do it.”
Angela Erickson, whose sister, Paige Duncan was killed on Highway 12 in February, echoed Squire at the press conference.
“I stand before you today and implore you to do the right thing,” Erickson said. “It’s tragic that we have to be here to ask for a special session. I’d really like to ask that we press forward with this special session to do what’s right.”
Kroells reported during that conference that his son had just turned 16, and was taking the driving test at that very time, meaning he would be driving on Highway 12 soon.
“I worry about his life, his friends’ lives, all our lives, and the lives of 20,000 motorists that travel this road every day,” Kroells said. “All we’re trying to do is save lives and prevent another tragedy from happening.”
“We encourage the governor to call a special session to get the funding for this highway,” Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, said during the press conference. “This funding is desperately needed. It’s a matter of life and death. I drive this highway everyday. We need the governor’s help . . . we encourage all parties to come together and get this done.”
Dayton responded to the call for a special session within hours.
“I’m going to take the weekend to think about the requirements I would have to call a special session,” Dayton said.
The only requirement he detailed by name was that the bonding bill include the health science building at the University of Minnesota.
Both Daudt and Dayton said they would like a potential special session to take place sooner rather than later.
“Next week, I’ll have my requirements out and sit down with the leaders to see what is agreeable, and if we have enough of an agreement for a special session,” Dayton said Wednesday. “ . . . If we’re going to have a special session and pass a bonding bill, I think it should be in June.”
If a special session happens early enough, and the Highway 12 funding is approved, it is possible that the barrier on the Long Lake bypass portion of the road could be extended the Hennepin County Road 6 before the end of the year.
“Let’s say if they came back with a special session in the fall, clearly we couldn’t do it this year,” Minnesota Department of Transportation Metro engineer Scott McBride said Monday, May 23. “If they did it this week, we could probably do something this year. I’m not exactly sure what that cutoff would be. It would need to be fairly quickly for us to do something this year.”
In the meantime, MnDOT has moved forward with designing the barrier.
“We’re proceeding as if some funding would happen, but we don’t have funding,” McBride said.
Without a special session, the only way MnDOT could fund Highway 12 improvements would be to move them ahead of another project, which McBride would not commit to do.
“We have way more needs than dollars,” McBride said. “That’s the reason for the debate that just happened.”
In addition to the barrier, other Highway 12 improvements in the bonding bill include realigning the Hennepin County Road 92 intersections and improving the County Road 90 intersection with a feature such as a roundabout.
In the meantime, left-turn lanes will be added at the County Road 92 intersections during the 2016 construction season.