As digging starts, more funding on the way

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2007 - 11:35 PM

AFTER THE COLLAPSE The federal government is now committed to funding nearly all the costs to replace the Interstate 35W bridge that failed on Aug. 1, doling out another $123.5 million.

With construction to rebuild the collapsed I-35W bridge barely started, Minnesota received welcome news on Thursday: the infusion of $123.5 million in federal emergency funds, released hours after groundbreaking had begun.

That money comes on top of the $250 million in funds initially promised by Washington, bringing the feds' total commitment to $373.5 million -- nearly the entire projected cost of the new bridge.

Not all of that money has arrived. Congress has yet to vote on $195 million in funding, an appropriation that remains locked in a transportation bill conference committee.

So far, the state has already received $55 million from the feds.

But in releasing Thursday's funds, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said the department "remains committed to paying the full cost of eligible repairs to rebuild the bridge," and would reimburse the state as additional costs were incurred.

The new funding also appears to resolve concerns that reconstruction costs might delay other construction projects, including the stalled Wakota bridge.

Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, said the total cost of the bridge replacement is estimated at $397 million.

Big, but not Katrina size

Thursday's action virtually drains the nation's transportation emergency account, which contained $175 million. Federal officials said the allocation is one of the largest emergency transportation aid packages of recent times, though not on the same scale as the billions of dollars provided for roads and bridges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Some analysts see the Bush administration's largesse in political terms, noting Minnesota's importance in next year's presidential election, both as a potential swing state and as the site of the Republican National Convention, where Pawlenty, a Bush ally, will play an important role.

"They can show that Republicans can manage well, which means we've learned from Katrina," said David Schultz, who teaches politics at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the new allocation means "our state will have enough funding to move ahead with construction of this vital project."

Oberstar crafted legislation after the bridge collapse lifting a $100 million cap on emergency relief disbursements to a single state.

Although the bridge money has wide support in both chambers of Congress and the White House, it has been bogged down in a larger spending battle between President Bush and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

Delays in that funding have sparked partisan wrangling. The three Minnesota Republicans in the House introduced their own bill allocating money for the bridge. Oberstar promptly accused them of posturing.

"In Congress, we're committed to rebuilding the I-35W bridge as quickly as possible," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who wrote the breakaway GOP bill. "We want to remove hurdles in the way of getting the job done, and this emergency funding brings us one step closer to our goal."

Oberstar, under fire over congressional funding delays, has also clashed with Pawlenty and Minnesota transportation officials, who he said were slow to make use of the available emergency funds.

The partisan rancor has also spilled into the Minnesota Legislature, where DFL legislative leaders recently balked at giving Pawlenty the legal authority to spend money not yet appropriated by Congress.

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