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Continued: State has passed on bridge aid since 2003

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 8, 2007 - 10:03 PM

Officials in the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty argue that they are merely trying to cope with bureaucratic obstacles and budget shortfalls dictated by Washington.

The rescissions, they note, represent dollars allocated to the states but not actually spent by Congress, rather than money returned to the federal treasury.

"It's monopoly money," said Brad Larsen, federal relations manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "It's not real money."

Some transportation analysts say the bridge money could be real if MnDOT and other state road bureaucracies elected to rescind other money, such as highway funds, which are rarely sacrificed.

"It does say something about where their priorities are," said Jeff Davis, the editor and publisher of Transportation Weekly, which tracks national transportation policy.

No limits

MnDOT officials say the federal bridge program dollars do not give a full picture of the state's overall spending on bridges. Of the $390 million on bridges since 2003, about $120 million came from the Highway Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement Program.

While another $40 million was transferred out of the program, much more was taken from other accounts and put into bridges, permitting state officials to spend $390 million.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said she welcomes the flexibility, as long as states can show that they meet national standards for bridge maintenance.

Peters and other Bush administration figures oppose Oberstar's proposal to raise the federal gas tax by 5 cents, arguing that existing funds could be used better. But the place to look, they suggest, is in congressional earmarks and other specialized funds, not in transfers of bridge money between various state accounts.

Despite Minnesota's rescissions and transfers, the state ranks fourth lowest in the percentage of bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. About 800 substandard Minnesota bridges qualify for repair or replacement under the federal program.

But MnDOT officials say they fund all of the bridge requests they get from their district engineers, without regard for which pot the money comes from. The bridges that make to the top of the state priority list -- like the Wakota -- are not necessarily those that fall below the rating required to qualify for federal bridge program dollars.

"We often times replace our bridges before they get to that point," McKenzie said. "That's why we rescind bridge apportionment, because it leaves the most flexible categories available to us to replace bridges when our bridge engineers think they need to be replaced."

kdiaz@startribune.com • 202-408-2753 lblake@startribune.com • 612-673-1711

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