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Congress' short-term funding fix brings relief to MnDOT for now

Posted by: Tim Harlow Updated: August 1, 2014 - 8:31 PM

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are relieved that Congress on Thursday passed a stopgap measure that will keep the Federal Highway Trust Fund solvent for another nine months and construction and transportation projects in the state on track.

The last-minute vote by the U.S. Senate provides $10.9 billion that the U.S. Department of Transportation can use to reimburse states for the costs to make repairs and infrastructure improvements to roads, rails, airports, the very aspects of the transportation system members of Congress used on Friday when many left Washington to start a five-week recess.

That was critical for MnDOT, which this summer is doing the second-biggest slate of metro area road construction projects in its history — 74 of them - plus another 199 outstate. In total, the agency is spending more than $770 million this summer on road construction and 60 percent of that comes from the Highway Trust Fund.

Without action, the Highway Trust Fund was projected to run dry by Aug. 29, and transportation secretary Anthony Foxx had said the department would cutback on its payments to states. That threatened to halt as many as 112,000 projects nationwide, including highway repairs and bridge construction.

"The good news is that Congress has avoided bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund," Foxx said. "The bad news is that there is still no long-term certainty, and this latest band-aid expires right as the next construction season begins."

For now it will be business as usual, and high-profile projects can move forward. Some of those include  putting in the new MnPass lane from Maryland Avenue to Little Canada Road along I-35E in St. Paul and Maplewood, adding a third lane on I-494 in Plymouth and Maple Grove, rebuilding and expanding Hwy. 100 to three lanes in each direction between Cedar Lake Road and 36th Street in St. Louis Park. That should start sometime in August.

But things are not as clear for next year since the Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money again in May. That makes planning for next year's projects a bit more uncertain, spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said.

"We are glad that Congress has developed a short-term solution, but we [MnDOT] believe that Congress needs to develop a long-term sustainable solution to fund transportation," Gutknecht said. "The transportation system is used to move goods and services, and people. It's extremely important and Congress needs to figure it out."

The Highway Fund and the associated Mass Transit Fund depends on revenue from the national gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, which was last increased in 1993. As fuel economy has improved and American drove less, money collected through the tax has dropped while construction costs have gone up. Talk about raising the tax has come up, but Thursday's vote almost assures it won't come to the table again until after mid-term elections in November.

That drew the ire of Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“Instead of facing the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown, Congress has approved a temporary fix to fund the Highway Trust Fund and put off making any tough decisions until next year," he said in a statement "This ongoing game of “kick the commuter down the road”, marks the fifth time since 2008 that Congress has passed a short-term extension of the bill."

Said Foxx, "while Congress may be able to wait until May, the country cannot. Americans deserve a multi-year transportation bill that provides the certainty that businesses and communities deserve, creates jobs, and makes necessary policy updates to lay the foundation for lasting economic growth."

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