When Oct. 1 rolls around, Wright County Commissioner Mike Potter is going to renew his annual efforts to get highway funding for Wright County. That is when the federal fiscal year begins and funding for road projects starts being discussed.
Potter has been about as active as any county official in Minnesota to get project funding awarded to Wright County. He is the president of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, the chairman of the Hwy. 55 Coalition, a member of the Association of Minnesota Counties Transportation Committee and has served on committees operated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
In the next funding cycle by the U.S. Congress, Potter will be leading the charge to get $25-40 million for the one remaining unimproved section in Wright County of Interstate 94 between Albertville and Monticello and $4.5 million for a stretch of Hwy. 55 that many Wright County residents use as a commuter route to work in the Twin Cities.
He hopes to get the projects to the top of candidates list of federal BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grants for I-94 and ROUTES (Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success) grants for Hwy. 55.
“We’re looking for federal BUILD money to finish the final section of I-94 between Monticello and Albertville and ROUTES money to get the plan and design phase of Hwy. 55 from Plymouth to Loretto,” Potter said. “We’ve done really well on getting the I-94 project funded between Maple Grove and Albertville and from Monticello to Clearwater. This year was the first time we applied for the BUILD and ROUTES grants. We didn’t get them, but we learned a lot in the process and will keep knocking on the door. Sometimes you have to be a bridesmaid for a while before you get there.”
Potter said it is never easy to traverse one’s way to the top of a grant list. It can take years to get a road project to work its way up and decades to get a bridge project funded. The key to success is to get the project details in the hands of key state legislators and the U.S. Congress who can champion the cause at either the state or federal level.
It’s never quick or seamless, but success can be measured incrementally.
“Getting funding for a big-ticket items is a long game – it’s a chess match,” Potter said. “You didn’t get it this time, but you accomplish getting that project on the list and on the minds of those who are going to push it forward in Congress. I’ve gone to Washington many times and I’m always pushing Minnesota projects, not just Wright County projects. I’m there representing my constituents and the residents of Wright County, but all federal money we can bring back to Minnesota is a positive for us. As much as I want our projects to come first, every project in Minnesota is important. Each time you make a move, it’s like chess. You improve your chances of getting something approved the next time.”
Potter said that getting approval for the upgrading of I-94 between Maple Grove and Albertville and from Monticello to Clearwater took the hard work of a lot of people who didn’t give up or get discouraged if it didn’t make the final cut. If anything, it hardened their resolve to keep the project front of mind with the decision makers until it did get approved.
“To get those segments of I-94 done, it required a team effort,” Potter said. “We got all of us pulling the wagon in the same direction and shared the same vision. Down in St. Paul, if they hear all of us speaking the same message, that has power. For the Maple Grove to Albertville project, we got Governor Mark Dayton to repeat our exact talking points on TV. That’s when you know you’ve won. I’ve always looked at it that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. You need to keep in contact with them. Before COVID hit this year, I was down at the Legislature two times a week lobbying for the citizens of Wright County. That’s how you get things done. You have to be there to see them and answer their questions and get your projects on their radar.”
Potter has also been a proponent of the county’s ½-cent Local Option Sales Tax. Due to cuts in funding to county’s for infrastructure needs and the growing problem of decay of an antiquated road system, the Local Option Sales Tax is a mechanism to get projects done that otherwise would see key roads in the county continuing to deteriorate.
“Not everybody likes the Local Option Sales Tax, but it has helped get a lot of county road projects done since it was enacted,” Potter said. “We have a lot of people that stop in Wright County and spend money. We’re not getting enough money from the state to repair our road system. There just isn’t enough money in the state. It’s the reason why they gave counties the option and it’s why most counties have enacted the local option tax. The way I look at when I hear those people who speak out opposed to the tax, I ask them if they would rather pay all of the cost for road repairs or have people from outside the county pay for 30 or 35 percent of that?”
Potter said that COVID-19 has changed the landscape of how governments are going to allocate money moving forward. But, he added that he isn’t going to stop advocating for Wright County projects because he loves what he’s doing and he sees the fruit of the labor that he and those who stand alongside him to push St. Paul and Washington D.C. to see the value in these projects.
He’s worked hard to keep pushing county projects forward – both inside and outside his district – and, as another Oct. 1 looms on the horizon, isn’t planning on slowing down his efforts, even during a pandemic.
“I’m proud of the work I’ve done for transportation,” Potter said. “All of the commissioners have areas that they’re really interested in and work hard to accomplish. For me, that’s transportation. I’m not going to around here forever. I’m in a big hurry to get as many of these road problems fixed, especially in the eastern part of the county. It’s been taxing on the brain to try to get these projects done. Some of them have taken a long time and others will be more difficult than others, but I’m never going to stop trying to get Wright County at the top of the list for getting road projects done so they will be set for decades to come.”