Transportation officials and legislative leaders need to agree on a plan to fund reconstruction while waiting for federal dollars to arrive.
With groundbreaking for the Interstate 35W bridge reconstruction just weeks away, the Minnesota Department of Transportation now says it may have to cut back maintenance or delay other metro-area projects to get bridge building underway unless it receives special permission from legislative leaders to spend money not yet appropriated by the federal government.
The $195 million in federal funds -- which earlier appeared to be on a fast track -- is trapped in a transportation bill that President Bush has threatened to veto.
MnDOT spokesman Bob McFarlin said the department is culling a list of hundreds of planned projects statewide to see which ones could be postponed if there is a funding delay. He would not name any specific projects facing possible delay, but said a majority would be in the metro area.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a statement late Friday she was "surprised" by the request.
She also said she found the possibility of reduced maintenance "alarming."One would think that a bridge collapsing in the Mississippi River would be enough to convince those in charge of MnDOT that maintenance deferral should never again be up for consideration," Kelliher said in the statement.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the request was further indication of problems at the troubled agency.
"It's becoming clear that we have such a huge problem at MnDOT that we need a full accounting of what's going on over there," said Murphy, who said he plans to call hearings within the next week or two.
Assurances from president
McFarlin said the department is responding to the disaster as well as it can, given its magnitude.
"We had a $300 million crisis dumped on us," he said. "We don't have that kind of money laying around unencumbered. And if we did, the Legislature would want to know why."
McFarlin said he is not concerned that the federal government will not make good on its promise to fund reconstruction.
"The governor has the personal assurance of the president of the United States and the Congress that we will get those funds," McFarlin said. "We take those assurances to the bank."
What McFarlin is troubled by is a possible delay in spending authority from the little-known Legislative Advisory Commission, made up of top leaders in the House and Senate and chaired by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"That's our worst-case scenario," he said. But, he acknowledged, "the second worst-case would be a delay of funds. If the feds would just appropriate the $195 million, that would help immensely."
'New and untried'
Legislative leaders say they're not even sure they can grant permission for spending such a huge sum of money -- a level of funding that typically would go through the full Legislature.
"The commission was designed to authorize small amounts of money," said Murphy. "The fact is, this all could have been taken care of in the special session we just had, but the governor didn't want a transportation bill."
Pawlenty early on had proposed a small transportation bill as part of the special session, but leaders said it would have been inadequate. A proposed gas tax increase also fell by the wayside.