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Jun 25

Gateway took ‘big step’ at Legislature

Originally published by Mike Longanecker, Woodbury Bulletin

Local lawmakers said the Gateway Corridor project picked up momentum this year at the Legislature, even though it didn’t receive the dedicated bonding money originally sought.

The east metro transit project could receive state dollars, but that will be up to the Metropolitan Council – the entity that received $15 million to be divvied up among metro transportation projects at its discretion.

Woodbury-area lawmakers had sought $5 million to fund environmental studies and preliminary engineering for the project, which would connect Woodbury with St. Paul’s Union Depot through a dedicated transitway serviced by either light rail or high-speed buses.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said it doesn’t always boil down to dollars and cents. Project advocates made a major dent in convincing Met Council leaders about the east metro’s transit needs, she said.

It also means bringing fellow lawmakers up to speed on the project, she said. Kent remembers when the mention of “Gateway” prompted some legislators to assume she meant the bike trail that runs from St. Paul to northern Washington County.

“It’s all incremental progress,” Kent said. “I think this was a big step.”

Democrats – who controlled both chambers of the Legislature – heaped praise on the session, which brought passage of anti-bullying legislation, heightened standards for women in the workplace and the legality of medical marijuana, among this year’s high-profile bills.

Kent added “fiscal stability” to that list, citing the state’s budget surplus.

“It took both (the 2013 and 2014) sessions to strike the right balance,” she said.

Both Kent and Rep. JoAnn Ward admitted that they would have preferred to see Gateway receive its own line item, though Ward said she expects the Met Council to look fondly upon the project.

“I see it as a compromise,” the Woodbury Democrat said. “It gives us all something to work with – not enough for all of the projects that are on that list, but I think Gateway is in a really good position to warrant a big portion of the funds that are needed because they’re primed to move on to the next step.”

Also providing momentum is a recent push from the White House.

In May, President Barack Obama named Gateway one of 11 national projects that will receive expedited review and permitting.

Obama described the fast-tracking process as one that cuts “bureaucratic red tape that stalls good projects from breaking ground.” U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the 4th District Democrat who represents St. Paul and the east metro, led the effort to get Gateway federally fast-tracked.

“She took that advocacy back to Washington,” Kent said.

Other issues

This year’s session also meant Andrea Kieffer being able to see through a piece of legislation she carried since her first term in office.

A bill authored by the Woodbury House Republican was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton on May 16.

The law requires enhanced penalties for those who have repeated low-level criminal-sexual conduct offenses.

“I was glad it finally passed,” said Kieffer, who is not seeking re-election this fall. “It was a lot of work.”

This session also brought the official conveyance of Crosswinds East Metro Arts and Science School to the Perpich Center For Arts Education. A year ago, the Woodbury school was left in limbo after lawmakers adjourned without taking action on a bill to transfer operational authority to another entity after the East Metro Integration District announced it could no longer fund Crosswinds.

The Perpich conveyance gives the school new lifeblood, said Ward, who authored the bill in the House.

“It’s such a relief,” she said, adding that the reconstruction of programming at the school will be “profound.

“It will be a tremendous asset to the state in arts education.”

Both Kent and Ward said transportation funding will be the top priority in 2015, though priorities could change after the November elections.

Dayton and all House members are up for re-election; a shift in political power in either – or both – the Legislature or governor’s office could reset priorities.