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Local projects included in House bonding proposal

Four Albert Lea projects have made it through the House Ways and Means Committee into the $2 billion bonding bill that is expected to come before legislators on the House floor likely on Saturday.

Local projects included in the bill include $7.5 million for continued dredging of Fountain Lake, $2.136 million for East Main Street flood mitigation, $600,000 for the Blazing Star Trail and $250,000 for the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency.

Andy Henschel, administrator for the Shell Rock River Watershed District, said he was pleased the full $7.5 million Fountain Lake dredging project was included in the House capital investment package.

“This is great news for our community,” Henschel said in a press release. “The project is the result of decades of community work to restore and enhance water quality in Fountain Lake, and we appreciate the support of community leaders. The lake is in the heart of Albert Lea. Our historic downtown showcases the lake, and it is the center of many community events.”

Dredging began in 2018 using a previous bonding appropriation of $7.5 million and local option sales tax funds of $9.5 million. The additional funds the district requested are needed to complete the final phase of the project, which includes dredging of the east basin of the Fountain Lake’s main bay, along with Bancroft Channel and parts of Bancroft Bay.

Henschel said he appreciated the support of District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett and District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks for the project and is hopeful the Legislature will be able to pass a final bonding package by the end of the regular session.

“We are looking forward to the next step toward improving water quality of Fountain Lake to sustain and restore the business and tourism economy of southern Minnesota,” he said.

The flood mitigation funding would go toward raising East Main Street — which is also known as U.S. Highway 65 — above flood levels or installing large storm water pumps to keep flood levels lower than the roadway when the highway is slated for a mill and overlay in 2021.

The flooding on the street, a state road, has been a problem each spring when snow is melting and when there is heavy rainfall. It has led to closures as long as about two weeks, which hinders not only local traffic, but other business traffic as well.

The funds for the Blazing Star Trail would go toward construction of two embankments, a 100-foot pedestrian bridge over Albert Lea Lake and associated trail work. The trail has been in the works since 1996 when it was authorized by the Legislature.

The city had requested $3.5 million for the flood mitigation and $1.75 million for the trail.

More information about the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency funding was not immediately available.

Bennett said though she was pleased to see the local projects make it into the bill, she believes the bill is too large for the state to pass right now and was disappointed that the bill was created without any Republican voices. She said she would support a bill closer to $1 billion or slightly more.

“I can’t support this large of a bonding bill,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fiscally responsible for our state.”

She said she thinks legislators were “playing politics” with putting all of the Albert Lea projects in the bill and it will be bittersweet because she knows she has to vote against this first bill. She anticipates the bill will be voted down and will come back for further negotiations.

She said she will continue to advocate for local projects and thinks the district has several important shovel-ready projects being considered for bonding funds.

She noted she was disappointed to hear that only $600,000 of the $1.75 million needed for the trail was included and said that the project was essentially an “all or none” scenario.

“We can’t build a third of a bridge,” she said.

Bennett said she agrees with other House Republicans who announced earlier this month that they would block the passage of a bonding bill until Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers tied to the COVID-19 pandemic ended.

She said she has been frustrated the governor has not involved the Legislature more and incorporated both Republican and Democrat voices in decisions surrounding the state’s response to the pandemic.

“My concern is that the people’s voice is heard,” she said, noting she thinks the state needs to move a little faster to reopen businesses than what the governor has been doing before there are many businesses that have to permanently close.