Even in a “normal” year, some level of chaos occurs during the final 24 hours of the Minnesota legislative session, and not everything gets done before the final gavel falls. So, given the unusual conditions under which the 2020 session took place, it should come as no surprise that our lawmakers will have to return to St. Paul for a special session, probably in June.
At or near the top of their to-do list is the capital improvements bill. While the DFL-controlled House and Gov. Walz wanted a package in the neighborhood of $2 billion, the GOP-led Senate wanted half that amount. Negotiations will continue in the days leading up to the special session, but we expect the final figure will be closer to the Senate's target.
That means some good, important projects likely won't receive funding, including $8 million for renovations at Cascade Lake Park and Silver Lake Park in Rochester.
While that's disappointing – especially at a time when we value socially distanced outdoor recreation more than ever – Rochester and the entire region appear poised for a big win with one project. Both the House and Senate bonding proposals include $11.4 million for runway safety improvements at Rochester International Airport.
That bipartisan support should surprise no one, as this project fits perfectly into the goals and purposes of the capital investment program.
For starters, it's a bargain for the state. Rochester is kicking in $5 million, and the Federal Aviation Administration has seen fit to invest $62.8 million, leaving Minnesota responsible for just 14 percent of the project's total cost of $79.2 million.
The bulk of that money will go toward a thorough upgrade of the runway known as 2/20, which is more than 40 years old and is at the end of its useful life. This is a pure infrastructure project, because like a concrete highway, a runway eventually reaches the point where even constant repairs won't allow it to safely handle heavy loads, especially in a region that has a temperature range of 130 degrees.
Runway 2/20 is about to hit that point – and Rochester International Airport needs to be able to handle heavy traffic.
RST is the second-busiest airport in Minnesota. It handles 50,000 flight operations annually, with 370,000 commercial passengers flying in or out on Delta, United and American Airlines. FedEx flies Boeing 757s into RST, and 23.5 million pounds of air cargo go through our airport each year.
Among the most precious items in that cargo are the roughly 25,000 medical specimens that come through RST each day. Not every patient can make the trip to Rochester, but Mayo Clinic labs and physicians can still provide crucial, potentially life-saving diagnostic services – services that require prompt, efficient transportation of samples from around the country, and indeed the world.
The volume of samples and patients is only going to increase. Although the COVID-19 pandemic took a bite out of Mayo Clinic's patient volume and finances in the first quarter of 2020, we have every expectation that this will be a short-term decline. The plans for Destination Medical Center remain in place, and as the clinic grows, so too will the need for a safe, efficient, top-notch airport to serve patients, families and medical personnel.
You can't have a great airport without great runways, and we urge our elected leaders to remember that when a special session of the Legislature convenes next month.
The bonding bill should be a top priority, and funding for the Rochester International Airport should be a slam-dunk.