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Officials go to Washington to make request for bridge project

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Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki is not in the camp of those who think that "earmark" is a dirty word.

Earmarks, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget, are funds Congress provides for projects or programs in which the congressional action "circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient."

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But to Harycki, earmarks are what will provide funds to pay for a new St. Croix River crossing.

Harycki was in Washington, D.C., last week for a conference sponsored by the National League of Cities. While there, he and two city council members visited the state's Congressional delegation.

"I had two visits with Sen. [Norm] Coleman and also met with various staff people. I had a visit with Rep. [Michele] Bachmann, and talked to the chief of staff for Rep. [James] Oberstar," he said.

The last visit is important as Oberstar, from Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District, is the chair of the House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. That committee will oversee any funding included in Congress' next transportation funding bill that will fund transportation projects across the country in coming years.

In regards to "establishing those contacts, it was good," Harycki said, "as well as getting the game plan for how we go about securing funds for the bridge."

Without an "earmark" on money designated for a new bridge, the request for funds for the bridge would be so far down the list of requests, the project may never receive funding. Congressional members will help seek $25 million for the bridge project in the next transportation bill, although even that request will go through a joint committee of Congress before it gets to the transportation bill.

Earmarks will also play a role in finding money to complete Stillwater's $6 million levee project, designed to prevent flooding of the downtown. The project, which will place flood control mechanisms below ground in Lowell Park, is gathering funding, a little more each year from federal, state and local coffers. Work is expected to begin in 2009.

Harycki said that there are surely abuses of the earmark process, "but without earmarks, the Stillwater flood control project would have never been built. That was a case that without an earmark, the project would not have been done. That was really Sen. Coleman who helped push that one through."

Councilmember Mike Polehna also felt that the meetings were productive.

"We got to meet a little more individually with the legislators than we had before," he said.

The bright spot of the trip is that staff members who the Stillwater delegation met with seemed quite familiar with the bridge project, which Polehna hopes is an indication the project will be on their work agendas when it comes time to craft bills.

Those with transportation projects are waiting to hear who will be the next state transportation commissioner, both Harycki and Polehna said. Then it will be time to get that person on board with the project.

"[Policy makers] like the idea of the different groups showing support. We need to get some support from the Wisconsin side of the river," Polehna added.

The councilmembers also heard about federal proposals to deal with the housing foreclosure crisis, including a tax credit that Coleman is proposing. That will have less of an effect on Stillwater, Harycki said.

"We do have the issue in the city, but I don't think it has gotten to the point of four houses on the block," he said.

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