Hoped-for capitol complex tunnel renovations face an uphill battle

In the 2024 session, the Minnesota Legislature considered borrowing $8.5 million to renovate the pedestrian tunnel that connects the capitol […]

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In the 2024 session, the Minnesota Legislature considered borrowing $8.5 million to renovate the pedestrian tunnel that connects the capitol and the State Office Building — which houses the offices of the 134 members of the House and some widely used committee rooms — to make it compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The current slope has a grade of more than 10.5 percent, which exceeds the ADA’s permitted grade of 8.3 percent. 

The Department of Administration’s bonding request cites the tunnel’s steep slope, which makes traversing the Capitol campus virtually impossible for people with disabilities without a powered wheelchair, especially during the winter months. 

This cost is on top of the $454 million Minnesota borrowed last year — before interest — to fund the State Office Building’s renovation, which is underway and scheduled to be completed in time for the start of the 2027 legislative session.   The tunnel renovation includes construction of a new 15-by-85 foot section adjacent to the existing tunnel. This new section will include an ADA-compliant slope and a new elevator that will assist pedestrians between the new ADA-compliant tunnel and the basement of the capitol building.  In 2021, lawmakers created an account to fund the renovation of the State Office Building, but the statutory language did not include renovation of the tunnel. Therefore, the tunnel renovation needs to be approved separately.  House Majority Leader Jamie Long (DFL-Minneapolis), said it was “probably an oversight” for lawmakers to omit the tunnel from the State Office Building renovation.  Long said that his colleagues many times over the years had to push former Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), up the tunnel’s steep slope in his wheelchair so he could make it to the House chamber for votes. 

Long also said he’s invited family members to tour the State Office Building and the capitol, but some had difficulty making it up the tunnel’s steep slope. They had to stop and catch their breath multiple times, he said. 

“It was a real barrier for them to be able to participate fully in what the capitol complex has to offer, so I think it is a really key accessibility point to get into the capitol building,” Long said. 

Wayne Waslaski, assistant commissioner with the Department of Administration, said renovating the tunnel now — construction would begin in August — aligns with completion of the State Office Building renovation. 

The tunnel is currently closed, as it’s being rerouted to connect with the State Office Building’s new addition. Minnesota House members — and the public — must walk outside and cross the street to access the capitol and vice versa. 

In December 2022, former Rep. Kurt Daudt (R-Crown), during the committee hearing that gave final legislative approval to the State Office Building renovation, said he had helped push even motorized wheelchairs up the slope near the capitol.  Then House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler during the hearing said that lawmakers tried to include the tunnel renovation in with the State Office Building project, but they were told it wasn’t within the project’s “scope of authority.” 

“I think it was an oversight of ours, probably, not to include (the tunnel) when we did the capitol building,” Daudt said during the hearing. The capitol renovation was completed in 2017. 

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth (R-Cold Spring) recently referenced the $8.5 million renovation to the tunnel as another example of Democrats’ “wasteful spending,” arguing it should have been included in the State Office Building renovation. 

This article first appeared on the Minnesota Reformer website. 

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