Our View: State should heed the lesson of Elk Run
There certainly is no shortage of courage — some might say temerity — on the Pine Island City Council.
It takes guts to come to a negotiating table with multiple requests and virtually nothing to offer in exchange. That's exactly what Pine Island did when it asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation to let the city off the hook for the lack of progress of the Elk Run biotechnology project.
The math is fairly straightforward. Pine Island, as part of the deal that fast-tracked construction of an interchange at U.S. 52 and Olmsted County Road 12, promised the creation of 182 new biobusiness jobs at Elk Run by 2018 and agreed to pay a penalty of $20,000 for each job short of that total.
Zero jobs have materialized, and given the lack of activity at Elk Run, Pine Island could owe the state $3.65 million.
But it probably won't have to pay. MnDOT has indicated its willingness to erase the debt, and indeed the new deal already could have been finalized, but last week, the city council opted to push for everything on its wish list, including direct access to U.S. 52 from 520th Street and a southbound acceleration lane from North Main Street onto U.S. 52.
This seems a bit like asking for and receiving a free lunch, then looking around and saying "What, no dessert?" It's worth noting that two council members — Jerry Vettel and Randy Bates — wanted to accept MnDOT's offer as-is. That probably would have been the gracious course of action, but since the 2012 elections, graciousness hasn't been the defining characteristic of Pine Island's governing body.
Ultimately, we have little doubt that MnDOT will forgive Pine Island's debt, and that's the right course of action. The state, Olmsted County and Pine Island all bet on Elk Run's success, and to this point, it's been a bad wager. You can't get blood out of a turnip, and if Pine Island were held to the letter of its agreement, the city would essentially be held hostage. That would penalize a lot of innocent people, especially the students in a town that desperately need a new school.
But this turn of events should serve as a cautionary tale. In the future, when the state invests taxpayer dollars in transportation projects that are tied to future developments, it shouldn't bother extracting apparently meaningless promises that will be torn up if things don't work out.
Keep in mind that, when the Elk Run interchange was approved three years ago, more than a few people in Cannon Falls — including former state Rep. Sandy Wollschlager — argued that the project had unfairly leapfrogged a much-needed interchange at U.S. 52 and Goodhue County Road 24. Similar sentiments were expressed regarding the long-awaited 65th Street interchange in northwest Rochester, and we can't help but wonder how many construction jobs and permanent jobs would have been generated in that area by now if MnDOT had spent its money a few miles to the south.
Yes, hindsight is 20-20, until Elk Run starts producing jobs and a return on the state's investment, we can't quibble with those who disdainfully refer to the "interchange to nowhere."