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.
"We wouldn't be in this situation of robbing Peter to pay Paul if we had adequate funds," Murphy said. "But the governor wouldn't bend."
No cash to cover costs
Legislators say they are concerned that if federal bridge funds get bogged down in Washington, the state will have stuck its neck out for $195 million with no cash to cover those costs other than what's already been allocated to needed transportation projects.
"I think it's very dicey," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, who heads the House Ways and Means Committee. "I'd be very cautious about giving authority to spend money that's not there yet."
Solberg, who sits on the legislative commission, said he considered the MnDOT request "strange," and recalled that in post-collapse bridge hearings, MnDOT officials had assured legislators that the department could handle the emergency.
"I want to cooperate with the governor," Solberg said. "I want to see the bridge built. But I won't put the state in financial jeopardy."
Kelliher said in her statement that the administration's proposal for authorizing funds is "a new and untried process" that by law must include an analysis of long-term effects on the trunk highway fund.
While the bridge collapse requires a speedy response, she said, "we also need to make sure that MnDOT is properly managed and operating with the necessary oversight in place to restore public trust.
In a hint of the legislative scrutiny to come, Kelliher said, "we have numerous questions that will be asked over the next few days regarding this request."
Patricia Lopez 651-222-1288