'Embarrassed' by bridge impasse

The mayor is dismayed, and experts say an opportunity for consensus has been lost.

Headed to a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting this weekend to talk about the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he found himself filled with dread and embarrassment.

"I'm going to have to walk in there and tell them that our state is doing nothing" on bridge repair, he said. "Other states are taking this seriously, but our state, where people died, is doing nothing."

When one of the state's most heavily traveled bridges fell into the Mississippi on Aug. 1, many thought the collapse would propel the state's crumbling network of roads and bridges to the forefront of discussion -- a tragic prologue that would surely set the stage for badly needed repairs and funding. But flash flooding in southeastern Minnesota changed that.

The floods a few weeks after the bridge collapse sharpened the need for local government aid across the state.

"We just had the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, we just had the floods in southern Minnesota. You start looking at emergency responses, you look at ambulances, you look at fire, you look at police -- that just straps the heck out of those when you don't have those dollars available," said Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, who is also president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

Last week, the U.S. Senate approved an extra $1 billion bill for bridge repair. But the end result of the Minnesota Legislature's special session last Tuesday was a narrowly targeted bill that mainly delivered about $157 million to the flood-ravaged southeastern corner of the state.

A moment of clarity

That was far less than what Gov. Tim Pawlenty had suggested was in store when he stood near the fallen span and predicted a special session that could include a gas tax increase, a transportation bill, a bonding bill and property tax relief.

So why couldn't Pawlenty and DFL leaders make it happen? Taxes, as has so often been the case, proved a major stumbling block. Even though Pawlenty said he would consider a nickel-a-gallon increase, he wanted an offsetting cut in income taxes.

That would have provided money for roads and bridges, but would have reduced funds for health care and schools -- unacceptable to DFLers.

Tax philosophies collide

Pawlenty said DFLers tried to load up the gas tax package with all the optional extras -- increased fees for license tabs, a half-cent metro sales tax and a possible outstate sales tax.

"The real reason transportation discussions were reaching an impasse is due to the DFL's insistence on massive tax hikes to fund big, urban transit projects," said the governor's spokesman, Brian McClung.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty has shirked his duty to set the agenda on bridge funding. "How many more bridges in the state of Minnesota have to fall before the public starts screaming for the governor to act like a governor?" said Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Ultimately, it was DFLers who blinked, backing off their transportation demands for fear of jeopardizing a special session entirely. That would have left one side or the other -- or both -- looking like ogres to flood victims seeking help.

DFLers were asked at a news conference why they didn't call Pawlenty's bluff and insist on an agenda that included transportation, betting that the governor wouldn't want to risk taking heat for not calling a special session.

"The Legislature was unwilling to play Russian roulette with the lives in southeastern Minnesota," Murphy said.

There was another reason to retreat. DFL leaders believe they can push through a gas tax hike when the Legislature meets in February, even though lawmakers will be heading into an election year.

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