The governor called it a historic step, but DFLers are calling it irresponsible.
More than 600 deteriorating bridges across Minnesota would be replaced under a $1 billion capital investment proposal made by Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday.
Nearly 40 percent of the borrowing, or bonding, plan is devoted to transportation, Pawlenty said, a record amount.
"This is a historic commitment to bridges in Minnesota," he said. The stunning collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge that killed 13 people in August threw into new light the long list of bridges in need of repair and replacement.
Monday's proposal, Pawlenty said, meets repair needs "in a more aggressive fashion."
That means other longstanding priorities, such as higher-education projects, conservation and even prisons, may be passed over.
The local projects that often find a place in bonding bills got the cold shoulder in Pawlenty's proposal.
"This is not the year to be doing recreational things," Pawlenty said, "so they'll have to wait."
The plan would spend $965 million raised through general-obligation bonds and an additional amount from other bonds and cash, bringing the total to $1.09 billion -- the state's recommended limit for debt.
Pawlenty said that while the mix of projects may change as the Legislature brings forward its own priorities, the amount would not.
"There will not be a bill signed by me that is more than $965 million," he said during a Monday news conference.
DFL has a different plan
DFLers criticized Pawlenty sharply for using so much of the state's credit capacity for bridge projects that could be paid for through increased taxes.
Higher education, which historically has received nearly a third of available bonding funds, would get less than a quarter under Pawlenty's proposal.
DFLers maintain that the state needs a comprehensive transportation funding bill that would include increases in the gasoline tax and license-tab fees and a wheelage tax to address its transportation backlog.
"The state has $790 million worth of locally deficient bridges," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, who leads the Senate Transportation Committee. "We have another $1 billion in deficient bridges at the state level."
Pawlenty, he said, "is trying to fool the public into thinking that we can use the state's credit card one more time to cover his political career. The amount of politics that gets played out of the governor's office is repulsive and this is just one more example."
In July, before the bridge collapse, the Minnesota Transportation Department made a bonding request of just $70 million to replace 400 local bridges in the 2008 construction season. Pawlenty said that the bridge collapse highlighted the need for an accelerated replacement schedule.
But even at $225 million, his recommendations would replace fewer than a third of the 1,800 deficient county, city and township bridges scattered across Minnesota.
Murphy said the Senate would have its transportation bill ready when the session opens on Feb. 12. That bill, Murphy said, would create a bridge account that would include a comprehensive plan to address what he said was a nearly $2 billion backlog of transportation projects statewide.
Education, transit included
In addition to funding transportation, Pawlenty recommended $129 million each for the University of Minnesota and for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, although MnSCU officials say they would have to self-fund $29 million of their allotment.
Another $46 million would go to clean drinking-water programs, while Pawlenty would spend $50 million on a package of economic development initiatives he recently introduced.
On the Central Corridor, however, Pawlenty cautioned that he was recommending only half the $140 million needed as a signal to developers to "get their act together." Planners for the project have had to deal with varying objectives for the corridor and have been unable to reach agreement.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said that he disagreed with Pawlenty only on funding for the Twin Cities rail line and the Duluth convention center. "This is a year for the basics," Seifert said. "We want a pork-free bill." House Republicans will likely trim both areas, he said, to free up more money for roads and bridges.
County officials delighted
Over at the Association of Minnesota Counties, officials were near giddy at the proposed boost in bridge funding.
"Can we spend $225 million in two years? Absolutely," said Carol Lovro, a transportation analyst with the association. "There are bridges in greater Minnesota that county engineers have had to close because it was too dangerous to let school buses and cars drive over them and they couldn't get the money to fix them."
Lovro said that Pawlenty's recommendation nearly doubles the $130 million that counties had requested. But that lower figure, she said, "is only because there's been such a lack of funding in recent years that counties haven't been as aggressive."
Pawlenty's proposal, she said, was "easily the largest in state history. The most we've ever gotten was $55 million two years ago, so we're very encouraged that the governor recognizes the level of need."
Lovro said she was a little dismayed at the bickering that had already broken out on Monday on how to fund repairs and replacements.
"This shouldn't be a partisan issue," she said. "It shouldn't be either bonding or a gas tax. The answer should be all of the above." Local governments alone fall short by $300 million for road and bridge maintenance, she said.
"We've got bridges built in the early 1940s that are becoming critical," she said. "If we don't get much more aggressive, we're coming to a point where a lot more bridges will have to get funded or be closed."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288