Capitol political spat ignites over bridge building

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2007 - 8:44 PM

Harsh words flew as DFLers voiced concerns about the reliability and timing of federal funds for the I-35W bridge.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty fired back on Tuesday at DFL leaders who are threatening to deny approval of a funding request to start rebuilding the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge, saying such a denial would be "nonsensical, silly and outrageous."

Pawlenty said that approval should be a "technicality ... a no-brainer," and accused legislative leaders of "purposely misunderstanding" the situation.

Without the Legislature's approval, the state would go ahead with the bridge project, but it could be forced to delay others -- including the Wakota bridge -- to free up funds.

Legislative leaders said on Tuesday they want to know what money the state will use until the promised $195 million in federal funding arrives.

"We can't just hand the governor a blank check," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy. "But when we ask hard questions, [the governor] resorts to name-calling."

While the debate may seem to revolve around mind-numbing technical language issues, underneath is tension over whether legislative leaders can force a second special session to deal with transportation issues, including the state's 1,100 structurally deficient bridges.

"Taking away money from 12 bridges to fix one bridge is not the right answer," said Murphy, DFL-Red Wing. "The right answer is to pass a comprehensive transportation bill."

Attempts to do so in a special session this month fell apart over details of a possible gas tax increase. Pawlenty has said that such a bill can wait until the Legislature reconvenes in mid-February.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote to Pawlenty on Tuesday saying his request "to spend federal revenue that has not yet been appropriated by Congress or approved by the President" risks "a substantial shortfall in state funds if the federal revenue is not received or is delayed."

Pogemiller and Kelliher said they also want more information about what they called "conflicting and inconsistent statements" by Pawlenty and Minnesota Department of Transportation officials.

An intense exchange of accusations continued throughout the day, with no resolution to the conundrum facing state officials: how to build a bridge on only a promise of money.

Pawlenty himself appeared to express some caution in his remarks, saying at one point that "if we get the federal money," adding quickly that "I think we will."

Murphy doesn't share that optimism: "I think there's huge doubt the federal money will come. You've got a president who's rattling his saber, saying he may veto the transportation bill. We don't know when that money will get here."

The legislative commission that will consider Pawlenty's request will meet on Monday. If it rejects the request, MnDOT has said it will begin drawing up a list of projects to be deferred.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288

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