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New funding strategy for Rochester airport project

ST. PAUL — Backers of a $5 million request to help expand Rochester International Airport’s customs facilities are deploying a new strategy to get the dollars.

ST. PAUL — Backers of a $5 million request to help expand Rochester International Airport's customs facility are deploying a new strategy to get the dollars.

Rep. Nels Pierson, R-Rochester, said the hope is that Rochester could get the money from the state airports fund. That would spare the city from having to compete for a spot in a construction borrowing bill, also known as a bonding bill, where requests outnumber funding by at least three-to-one. But just to be careful, Pierson said he is pursuing both options to make sure the project gets funded this legislative session.

"We want to make sure we're in a position to be at the top of the bonding list if that's what's needed. We're hoping that's not what's needed," said Pierson, who is sponsoring a bill to fund the airport project.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal recommends the Rochester airport project be funded via the state airports fund. House Capital Investment Committee Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he agrees. That means the project would need to be including in this year's transportation funding bill.

"It would be my intention that language for the appropriation would be guaranteed in the transportation bill," Torkelson said in an interview.


Backers of the Rochester project made their pitch to the House Capital Investment Committee on Thursday. John Reed, executive director of Rochester International Airport, said U.S. Customs and Border Patrol notified the city in 2002 that its customs facility did not meet federal standards. The agency ramped up pressure in October, sending a letter that warned if the facility is not brought into compliance, U.S. Customs and Border Protection could close it after giving 120-days notice. If that happens, Rochester would lose its designation as an international airport.

Reed told lawmakers that the city is faced with an "unfunded mandate" to expand the customs space and needs state help.

"I can assure you that we have explored all options and our request reflects the most efficient and financially prudent approach to meet the requirements," Reed said.

Under the proposal, the airport's 450-square-foot customs space would be expanded to 20,000-square-feet and moved to the main terminal. Upgrades would include segregated and secure inspection rooms, lockup facilities for detained passengers and segregated and secure luggage and cargo inspection areas. The total project's price tag is $10.5 million. The city of Rochester would pay nearly $2.8 million and the Federal Aviation Administration has committed to spending $2.7 million. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is sponsoring a bill in the Senate for the airport funding.

Cassandra Isackson, director of Minnesota Department of Transportation's Aeronautics, told lawmakers that the state airports fund is expected to have enough additional money to pay for the Rochester airport upgrade, along with proposed improvements at Duluth's airport. Money for the fund comes from a variety of aviation taxes. Isackson said the fund is projected to have a surplus. One big reason for the boost in cash is that the fund was repaid $15 million that had been borrowed in the past when the state was experiencing a budget deficit.

"As we've looked at the fund and our plans for this next fiscal year, the recommendation was these projects could come form this fund," Isackson told lawmakers.

During the hearing, Rochester DFL Rep. Tina Liebling emphasized the importance of getting the project done this year. She said it's especially important given the amount of money the state is investing in Rochester as part of Destination Medical Center.

"To be able to expand the capacity to be able to keep up with modern requirements is absolutely critical to support the other investments the legislature has made or will be making in Rochester," Liebling said. "It's really important to support our economy in the region, I think it's hard to overstate that."

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