Old Town remake denied federal funds

Mark Fischenich, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·5 min read

Apr. 7—MANKATO — A $7.2 million makeover of Riverfront Drive through Old Town has been denied federal funding, although city officials may still decide to move forward with the project.

More than $2.5 million in federal funds were reserved for city projects in south-central Minnesota for 2025, but a roundabout in St. Peter and a street reconstruction in Waseca were selected over projects in Mankato and North Mankato.

"Unfortunately for us, the funds went to other projects," Mankato Public Works Director Jeff Johnson said.

The funds are awarded each year by the Area Transportation Partnership, which is made up of city and county leaders, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials and others in MnDOT's 13-county District 7.

Johnson is hopeful for a different result in future years for the Riverfront Drive project. Expected to cost $7.17 million, the work includes reconstruction of the high-traffic street from Main Street to Lafayette Street, just short of Madison Avenue.

Along with improved pavement, city officials are aiming to make Riverfront more attractive and pedestrian-friendly through the Old Town business district.

"The city of Waseca and the city of St. Peter had good strong applications," Johnson said. "And they also, frankly, hadn't been funded in a while."

Mankato, by contrast, is already slated to receive $554,000 in ATP funding in 2024 for a roundabout at Augusta Drive and Highway 22.

St. Peter's application sought $1.24 for a roundabout at St. Julien Street and Old Minnesota Avenue, and the ATP awarded just over $1 million.

"That's going to be a great project, and it's something that's going to help that area — business wise — fill in the blanks," said Public Works Director Pete Moulton.

The intersection is just west of Highway 169 near McDonald's and the Holiday Station Store.

Numerous other businesses, including the Hy-Vee supermarket and Alumacraft Boat Company, are nearby. With traffic through the intersection growing, St. Peter city officials worried that the four-way stop would start to perform poorly during busy driving times.

"The main thing we're trying to eliminate is traffic backing up toward Highway 169," Moulton said.

The $2.1 million roundabout has been under consideration for nearly a decade, but it was decided to delay construction until development in the area required action.

"2025 is going to be right on schedule, if not a little late," he said.

Cities sometimes choose to construct a project in advance using local funding, knowing the federal ATP funds will be arriving a year or two later. That's something St. Peter is likely to consider, possibly for construction as soon as 2023, as it sets its budget later this year, according to Moulton.

A decision on the timing of the project will need to take into account MnDOT plans to do significant reconstruction on Highway 169 on both the north and south ends of St. Peter in the next two to three years.

"We can't have everything shut down at once," he said. "... So we've kind of got a little jigsaw puzzle we're trying to put together."

Moulton agreed with Johnson that the ATP prefers to spread funding throughout the region and said St. Peter hasn't received funding for more than five years.

Waseca hasn't been on the list either in recent years, said City Manager Lee Mattson. This time, the entire $1.38 million requested was granted by the ATP for a reconstruction of Second Street Northwest from Old Highway 14 to Seventh Avenue Northwest.

The $2.8 million project will completely replace the underground sewer and water pipes as well as the driving surface on a street that leads to the local hospital, the courthouse, the city's hardware store and other businesses and homes.

"It's aged and the infrastructure has gotten to the point where the whole thing needs to be redone," Mattson said.

At the moment, the plan is to wait on construction until the federal money arrives in 2025.

In Mankato, it's possible the Riverfront Drive project will move forward with construction in the next couple of years if city officials have more success with an ATP application next year or if the project appears to be in a strong position to receive funding over several years. The project is eligible for up to $5.2 million in federal funds under the program, which was almost exactly twice the total amount available in ATP funds for city projects across the region in 2025.

Johnson is optimistic the work will be funded at some point, and designs could be finalized in time for construction as soon as next year. But at nearly $7.2 million, including $6.5 million in construction costs, the Old Town makeover is an expensive project. So elected officials may need solid reassurance that financing assistance is coming before approving construction.

"All of that will be up to the council," he said.

North Mankato, too, has a high-cost project in the competition — the $4.9 million remake of Lor Ray Drive on the north end of town, including a roundabout at Lor Ray and Carlson Drive. The project received the same score from the ATP as the Riverfront Drive proposal this year. A fifth project — reconstructing College Avenue in St. Peter from Highway 169 to the entrance of Gustavus Adolphus College — was also denied 2025 funding by the ATP.

There is one other potential solution for those unfunded projects — and tens of thousands of others across the United States. President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure funding plan, although it is facing widespread opposition by Republican lawmakers.

Despite the uncertainty regarding its fate, discussions are already beginning in St. Paul on how funding might be disbursed around the state if the proposal makes it through Congress, Johnson said.

"With the infrastructure bill that's proposed, you never know what will happen," he said.