A gathering of the North Metro Mayors Association this week looked more like a grief support group than a meeting of city leaders discussing transportation problems.
After watching major projects in the north metro get delayed, the mayors reaffirmed their displeasure with the transportation funding problem they say has hit projects in the north metro particularly hard.
They are intensifying their efforts to remind legislators of the unfinished Hwy. 610 extension and the delayed devil's triangle junction of Hwy. 169, Hennepin County Road 81 and 85th Avenue N. Two of the intersections in the junction rank as the third and sixth worst for crashes in the state, but the 2007 construction start was delayed.
"It doesn't seem like they recognize the need for transit improvements in the north metro," Brooklyn Park Mayor Steve Lampi said in an interview after the Monday meeting. "They don't recognize how fast we're growing."
Many north metro officials have seen money for projects in their area get rerouted to other projects -- such as the decision to take $35 million from the $50 million devil's triangle and use it for the Crosstown project in December 2006. And if it wasn't bad enough seeing construction postponed, cities and counties are being asked to pay for projects until the state can pay them back.
Officials from each city can rattle off a list of projects that they had to finance because the state couldn't come up with the funds:
• In Maple Grove, it was $15 million for bridges that typically would have been a state expense.
• In Blaine, it was $2.5 million for a bridge in the ongoing Highway 65 project that was originally supposed to cost the city $750,000.
• In Champlin, it has been millions of dollars for upgrades along Hwy. 169 over the past five years.
Many of the mayors echoed each other's frustrations when they explained the costs their cities have incurred and ultimately had to pass along to their residents.
"Cities and counties are having to spend their money to provide roads," said Ramsey Mayor Tom Gamec. "It's time for the state to step up."
Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she has worked with the League of Minnesota Cities to start compiling a list of how much money cities have lent to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for road projects. Even though the money will eventually be repaid, Hortman said she is concerned that the interest on the payments won't be returned to the cities.
"We've tried to make a point to [Gov. Tim Pawlenty] that funding transportation properly at the state level will mean property tax relief," she said.
Focus on bridges
All the mayors recognize that there are new priorities for transportation funding after the 35W bridge collapse. But Lampi remembers Pawlenty standing on the bridge overlooking the unfinished Hwy. 610 two years ago and vowing that the project would be at the top of the list.
"With the [35W] bridge falling down, that changes the state's emphasis, but it doesn't change the underlying problem," Lampi said. "We have a transportation system that is probably in crisis and there needs to be a plan to fix it."
Several of the mayors said they have talked with their state legislators and urged them to continue pushing for a transportation funding package during this legislative session that includes a gas tax increase, registration renewal increases, bonding for projects and a half-cent sales tax in the metro area that would go toward transit.
Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said he understands the mayors' frustrations, especially when there is a history of delayed north metro projects. He recalled that portions of Hwy. 100 south of Interstate 394 were completed long before the section in the north metro, and Hwy. 212 in the south metro is nearing completion while the extension of Hwy. 610 is still a grassy field.
"There's an impression from the mayors and northwestern suburbs that our projects always take second banana to projects elsewhere around the metro," Nelson said, adding that he knows projects around the state are also getting delayed.
Both the devil's triangle and Hwy. 610 completion projects are priorities for Nelson, but after talking with MnDOT officials recently, he thinks the projects will again get pushed to the bottom of the list. The time frame for the Hwy. 610 project is now set between 2015 and 2025, Nelson said.
"When our turn comes up, our projects go away," he said. "That's the frustration of the mayors."
"The demand just keeps growing exponentially for what we need to do for roads and brides," Nelson said. "But the dollars we've got are falling farther behind."
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628