The long-standing debate surrounding the St. Croix River Crossing Project continues in Oak Park Heights.
Officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Tuesday is able to construct the St. Croix River Crossing Project “with no cost to the city whatsoever.”
But the City Council approached the proposal with reservations and numerous questions regarding municipal consent and the definition of “betterments.”
As it stands, the Oak Park Heights City Council is tasked to decide if the construction plans submitted by MnDOT on July 2 are in accordance with the layout approved by the city in 1995.
The city has the option to take no action by Aug. 29 or request an appeal board be formed.
One point of contention between MnDOT and the city of Oak Park Heights is the description of "betterment" with regards to city utilities and construction of the project.
Project Manager Jon Chiglo told the Council the project has no city “betterments” in the footprint of the project, and therefore requires no city funds.
“We are able to avoid your utilities,” Chiglo said, “and the ones we are unable to avoid, we will use trunk highway dollars and federal funds to replace at cost not burdened by the city.”
MnDOT defines a betterment as: “any upgrading of the facility being relocated that is not attributed to the highway construction and is made solely for the benefit of and at the election of the (city’s utilities).”
Betterments are based on legislation and are held consistent with projects across the state, Chiglo said. This issue is not unique to Oak Park Heights.
After thoroughly reviewing the city’s proposed utility work, MnDOT has determined that replacing or improving the 50-year-old pipes that will be beneath the new roadway is a “betterment,” which would not be available—per state and federal law—for trunk highway dollars or federal funds.
“The viewpoint of the Department is not necessarily shared by our legal team with regards to the definition of betterments,” Oak Park Heights Mayor David Beaudet said.
The city of Oak Park Heights believes the utilities that will eventually be located beneath the new roadway are impacted by the project, and therefore, are not “betterments.”
The difference boils down to about $3 million in utility work.
“MnDOT has made a lot of concessions over the years,” Councilmember Mary McComber said. “There’s obviously a disagreement over what the description of a betterment is and hopefully we will get through that.”
Councilmember Mark Swenson said he has supported the project since 1995, and continues to support it.
“I think what you came up with tonight, with no cost to the city is a definite gain,” he said. “I think we have some things to improve on. I think we need to come up with a better way to do some of the things we are doing, but I think we’re at a road now where the city needs to be cognizant with what we replace and how we proceed. We are at a crossroads where we need to give you our support.”
A second point of contention that needs to be resolved between MnDOT and the city of Oak Park Heights is municipal consent.
Based on a , MnDOT believes the construction plans for the project are consistent with the size and scope of the project approved by the city in 1995, Chiglo said. So municipal consent previously granted to MnDOT should still be valid.
But Beaudet argues that the issues surrounding municipal consent are “certainly still open for interpretation.”
Chiglo is taking the district court case “out of context,” Beaudet said. The judge didn’t say the 1995 plans and 2005 plans were identical.
The only difference in the two plans was a bridge over 95 that is no longer included in the project, Chiglo said. That change does not impact the trunk highway.
But the plans MnDOT has submitted to the city are based on the 2005 layout, which was never submitted to the city of Oak Park Heights and therefore never approved, reviewed or commented on by the city of Oak Park Heights, . Under the provisions of the law, the city’s position is that the plans MnDOT submits to the city should be in accordance with the layout plan approved by the city in 1995.
“By your admission, the Department is not doing that and thus is not complying with the requirements of statute,” a letter from Oak Park Heights City Attorney to MnDOT reads.
“That’s the crux of the problem,” Beaudet said.
If MnDOT wants to follow the law, he said, the Department needs to submit the plans approved in 1995.
In 1995, the city approved the layout plan, Chiglo said. In 2007, the District Court found that the project as it currently exists in the 2005 layout—when compared to the 1995 project approved by the city—“is in substance and purpose substantially the same project.”
“Our focus is on getting this project built,” Chiglo said. “We don’t want to waste energy arguing.”