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Candidates talk transportation at forum

Julie Bunn, left, of Lake Elmo, and Jen Peterson, of Cottage Grove discussed transportation issues facing the east metro at a forum Thursday in Cottage Grove. Staff photo by Patricia Drey Busse.

More investments in transportation are needed, said local political candidates who spoke at a transportation forum Thursday in Cottage Grove, but raising spending will be tough to do in the current economic climate, some said.

Increasing the gas tax, motor vehicle sales tax or other fees are three options offered by the Transportation Alliance, the organization that sponsored the forum held at the Washington County Government Center in Cottage Grove.

"We have to be aware of the public sentiment for raising taxes right now," said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, who is running for her second term at the Legislature.

Much of the money that has funded local transportation projects such as re-paving Highway 61 between St. Paul Park and Hastings, the pavement project on Interstate 494 in Woodbury and the Hastings bridge replacement was one-time money, either from the federal stimulus act or from 2008 state legislation that authorized $1.8 billion in trunk highway bonds to be issued said Adam Josephson, east area manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"These funds are more shots in the arm to get things done ... but they went mostly to preservation projects," Josephson said.

Legislators said they foresee some bonding money going toward transportation this year, even though in the even years the Legislature typically focuses on the budget and passes only a small bonding bill to fund key projects.

"I suspect the (bonding bill) would have a heavy emphasis on infrastructure," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, vying for re-election in District 57B, which includes Hastings, Denmark Township and Afton.

Jen Peterson, a Cottage Grove DFLer who is seeking the House District 57A seat, said she favors bonding for transportation projects to keep people working and improve the environment.

We should be, "doing what we can now to decrease the use of oil and gas and decrease the amount of time people are sitting in traffic," she said.

The issue of Wisconsin drivers using Minnesota's mass transit system also came up at the forum.

Rep. Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, said on a given weekday, half the cars in the Park and Ride lot at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale bear Wisconsin license plates.

Bunn, first elected to 56A in 2006, said she hopes working with leaders from Wisconsin through the Gateway Corridor commission will result in the creation of similar lots on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River.

Speakers at the forum included McNamara, his challenger, Hastings DFLer Dave Page; Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove; Peterson; Bunn; Saltzman; Bob Anderson, an Independence Party candidate running to represent Minnesota's 6th District in Congress; and Shelley Madore, a Democrat seeking to represent Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District.