OPH council OKs approach plans: Approval comes after Dayton’s ‘pledge’ to find $1.5M to help pay for utility work

OAK PARK HEIGHTS — Jon Chiglo now has a bridge to build.

Backed by a last-minute pledge from Gov. Mark Dayton to find federal or state funds to help Oak Park Heights cover utility betterment costs, the city council Thursday passed a resolution approving submitted St. Croix River Crossing and approach construction plans and finding the plans consistent with plans the city consented to in 1995.

The resolution passed on a 4-1 vote with Mayor David Beaudet opposing the measure. The vote followed a speech by the mayor in which he outlined his objections.

The city’s decision means the state Department of Transportation can start work on the Minnesota approach to the new St. Croix River Bridge along Minnesota Highway 36 next spring, according to Chiglo, MnDOT’s project manager.

“The next step for us is to begin the procurement process for the design-build portion,” he said. “May 1 (2013) is the anticipated start of construction.”

Prior to its vote, the Oak Park Heights council had three resolutions it could consider. One option found plans for the bridge and approaches not consistent with the ‘95 consent and a second called for conditional consent of the plans subject to mitigation measures between the city and MnDOT.

Those two resolutions never made it before the council. Instead, Councilman Les Abrahamson moved approval of the consent resolution based on Dayton’s letter hand delivered to City Hall Thursday and a separate letter from MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel outlining 16 points of agreement between the city and MnDOT on approach-related projects.

Dayton in his letter acknowledged Oak Park Heights’ request for help covering nearly $2.9 million in utility “betterments” associated with the bridge approach work. The governor points out the 2011 Legislature appropriated $1 million and Oak Park Heights agreed to pay $351,828, leaving a gap of slightly more than $1.5 million.

“With this letter, I personally pledge to requesting approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary (Ray) LaHood for the federal government to commit $1,520,170 for these project costs,” Dayton writes. “If Secretary LaHood informs me that the U.S. Department of Transportation is unable to provide these funds, I will request and do my utmost to secure an additional State General Obligation bond appropriation equal to $1,520,170 during the 2013 legislative session.”

Dayton adds that with his commitments, “no issues remain that would prohibit the City of Oak Park Heights from passing, on Aug. 23, 2012, a resolution expressing its unconditional municipal consent to, and approval of, all work associated with the St. Croix Crossing Project.”

“Gov. Dayton is seeking to make Oak Park Heights whole,” Abrahamson said.

Two members of the capacity crowd in the council chambers asked the council to reject the resolution giving consent to the construction plans. A representative of the Izaak Walton League urged the council to re-affirm opposition to the bridge project.

Architect Bill Davies said the only reason the for the proposed bridge is to alleviate traffic issues in Stillwater

“The only redeeming quality of the MnDOT proposal is that it gets traffic out of Stillwater,” he said.

Two other speakers urged the council to approve the consent resolution and move the project forward.

“I know it’s been hard. I’m very pleased with the work you’ve been doing. It’s been a long battle,” said Chuck Larue.

“I feel it’s time for the city to declare victory,” added Chuck Dougherty. “It’s now time to move forward and get this bridge built.”

In remarks prior to the vote, several council members said they and other city officials worked hard to make MnDOT aware of the city’s concerns.

“A lot of people have been affected by this,” said Councilman Mark Swenson. “Bayport, Baytown Township, Oak Park Heights were all affected by this project. I know in my heart that the city did everything we could to get what we wanted. Everybody is not going to be happy.”

“I’m very proud we have gotten to this point,” added Councilwoman Mary McComber.

Beaudet, however, criticized the St. Croix Crossing project, calling it a regional rather than local project.

“This project we have produced is not serving the local needs of the community,” he said.

Beaudet ended his remarks by saying, “I cannot support the project.”

After the vote, Chiglo said MnDOT would continue working with Oak Park Heights on the project.

“I’m looking forward to working with the city to get this project moving forward,” he said.

When asked about the governor’s pledge to find funds to help Oak Park Heights on utility-related project costs, Chiglo said his focus remains on the project.

“My job is to deliver this project and we got our final municipal consent,” he said. “I’m focused on moving this project forward. Right now, I have a project to move forward.”