Bridge plan sets off squabble over transit

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2007 - 9:22 PM

Legislators debated the merits of light rail and heard about a proposal to increase the federal gas tax by 5 cents.

The debate over rail and bus transit dominated a joint transportation committee hearing Wednesday on replacing the collapsed I-35W bridge, as U.S. Rep Jim Oberstar touted his proposal for a temporary federal gas-tax hike to fund bridge repair and lent his support to a permanent state gas-tax increase.

The focus of the four-hour hearing was an overview of plans for reconstructing the bridge. One preliminary plan shows a 189-foot wide structure that would accommodate 10 lanes of traffic, two of which would be devoted to bus rapid transit or managed lanes. While a new bridge may not initially contain transit, those lanes would be design-ready to accommodate light rail or bus rapid transit.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to release a request for proposals to rebuild the bridge by noon today.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said that the bridge should be transit ready, but that it might be too early to determine whether there should be transit on the new bridge.

"We would be unwise today to limit those options for the future," Rybak told the committee. That prompted Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, long a critic of the Hiawatha light rail line, to object. Day, who supports increased bus service, has long contended that light rail is cost inefficient and has called the state's only LRT line, the Hiawatha line, the Train to Nowhere.

'Train to Nowhere 2'?

"I don't think it's wise," Day said. "This would be the Train to Nowhere 2. All of a sudden a bridge goes down and we have another transit corridor."

Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who has been the focus of considerable criticism since the bridge collapse, faced additional questions about the Pawlenty administration's funding of transportation.

Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, also briefed legislators on a proposal to increase the federal gas tax by 5 cents a gallon for three years to address the nation's deteriorating bridge system. He said he endorses the idea of increasing the state's gas tax as well to address specific state transportation needs.

The state's Republican Party said Oberstar's call for a federal gas-tax increase was unwarranted, saying federal transportation funding dollars too often are spent on what it called "glitzy pet projects."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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