Pawlenty pitches transportation projects

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2009 - 10:47 PM

Corporations will help pay for highway interchange projects in what state leaders tout as a model for future road projects.

Millions of dollars from corporations are accelerating construction of two major highway interchange enhancements in a funding strategy Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel described as models for future projects.

UnitedHealth Group Inc. is contributing $5 million toward an $18 million reconstruction of the interchange at Hwy. 169 and Bren Road in Minnetonka, a project that will support the addition of 1,600 employees at the nearby UnitedHealth offices. Sixty miles south, two development companies are kicking in $13 million, nearly one-third of the cost of an interchange on Hwy. 52 in Pine Island seen as critical to development of a bioscience medical campus.

The Minnetonka project had been on MnDOT's list of proposed projects, but the Pine Island project had not been. Pawlenty said the state will now be "aggressively and proactively" asking private interests who benefit from highway improvements to help pay for them.

Sorel noted that the "public-private partnerships" may be one way MnDOT can address what's expected to be a chronic shortage of funds to cover highway improvements around the state over the next several decades.

Noting that Best Buy Corp. invested $7 million in the expansion of the Interstate Hwy. 494 interchange at Penn Avenue, Sorel and Pawlenty scoffed at notions that the approach lets wealthy corporations draw up MnDOT's to-do list. Pawlenty said any project will have to combine elements of travel efficiency, safety, congestion reduction and economic development before it gets a go-ahead.

"I don't think the types of initiatives we're discussing today are going to throw the system out of balance," Pawlenty said.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he is not opposed to such partnerships but questioned whether they allow private interests to play a role in operations and maintenance of public infrastructure. "If you get the tail wagging the dog on this stuff and in essence driving major infrastructure decisions, where's the end of that?" he said.

However, when asked what benefit UnitedHealth might see beyond better access to its headquarters, spokesman Will Holman said, "Nothing."

In a news conference Tuesday, Pawlenty and Sorel also announced that the agency will conduct a year-long study on where it might install new MnPASS tolling on existing freeway lanes, and that it will make some expansions and other improvements along Interstate 94 between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The governor and Sorel also announced that MnDOT will accelerate up to $40 million in "low-cost, high-impact" projects designed to reduce congestion around the metro area. Such projects would be similar to the $7 million addition of lanes on Hwy. 100 between I-394 and Hwy. 7 in 2006 and the just-completed $1.1 million addition of an interchange lane at I-494 and Hwy. 212. They also announced a similar approach emphasizing safety on rural two-lane highways, where most of Minnesota's traffic fatalities occur.

I-94 will feature four lanes for most of the distance between downtown St. Paul and the Lowry Hill tunnel in Minneapolis, in effect making permanent some of the changes put in place to add capacity after the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007.

But some merges that had been converted to lanes -- such as from southbound Hwy. 280 to westbound I-94 and from northbound I-35W to eastbound I-94 -- will return as merge lanes, while some shoulders will be improved to let buses drive faster. Sorel said the work would be done with only minimal widening to the highway; no non-highway property will be absorbed into the right-of-way.

Dibble and Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, said the announcements simply put an emphasis on work the Legislature has authorized -- some over Pawlenty's own objections, Dibble noted. Morrow said the $3 million to $5 million for safety improvements on rural two-lane highways is well short of the need, which he said includes $300 million to expand Hwy. 14 from two lanes to four across part of southern Minnesota.

Staff writer Jim Foti contributed to this report.

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