Stopgap spending on roads, bridges sets up showdown

  • Article by: Pat Doyle
  • Star Tribune
  • October 15, 2007 - 8:37 PM

Seeking to avert a threatened slowdown in road and bridge construction, legislators on Monday authorized the state to spend $60 million more over the next several months to keep projects on schedule.

But Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the extra money probably won't be enough to rebuild the Interstate 35W bridge and keep other needed construction projects on pace through the first half of 2008.

A DFL-led panel authorized the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to tap an additional $60 million in state highway funds to move ahead with 41 projects scheduled between October and February, including the Wakota Bridge.

The panel rejected a request from Pawlenty for at least $145 million to cover work through June.

It said those decisions could and should be made by the Legislature when it convenes in February.

The stopgap spending virtually guarantees that transportation funding, a hot issue for years but never more so than since the August bridge collapse, will quickly dominate debate in the legislative session. DFLers have talked since the collapse of the I-35W bridge of mounting another effort to raise the state's gasoline tax to pay for bridge and road improvements. Pawlenty has vetoed previous attempts to raise the tax.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said Monday that the $60 million would allow projects to move forward while the panel continues to press MnDOT about its spending decisions.

"We are not going to delay projects," she said.

Cash crunch warnings

In legislative hearings over the past three weeks, MnDOT officials revealed an upcoming cash crunch related to replacing the I-35W bridge. While the federal government in August pledged $250 million toward rebuilding it, the state later estimated the total cost at $393 million.

The state already has access to $55 million of the federal money, but the Pawlenty administration asked legislators to make $195 million in state funds available to cover bridge expenses until the remainder of the federal funds arrives.

In a letter to the panel Monday, the governor said if legislators were unwilling to authorize the full $195 million, $145 million would provide enough money to "allow [MnDOT] to manage the construction program into the 2008 legislative session, although this choice would not be optimal."

After the panel approved only $60 million, Pawlenty's press secretary, Brian McClung, issued a statement calling it "less than half a loaf with no additional future commitment. This will make it difficult to rebuild the 35W bridge without delaying any other projects."

But Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said $60 million would cover construction until the Legislature convenes in February and agrees to a more comprehensive funding solution. Kelliher said the Legislature could reconsider a gas tax increase.

However, MnDOT Deputy Commissioner Lisa Freese said a $60 million authorization would force the department to reconsider priorities all the way through June. She said there is no guarantee that the Wakota Bridge project, scheduled to begin in January, would proceed on schedule if legislators approve only $60 million now.

"We may or may not think the Wakota Bridge is the best project to move forward," she said. "Those are decisions we would need to make once we know what authorization levels we have to move forward with."

Pogemiller noted the Wakota project could be delayed for reasons other than funding, adding, "You may choose to do other projects because Wakota isn't good to go for some reason. ... But it won't be because of what this group does."

The $60 million, he told Freese, "gets you to where you need to be by February. Everybody gets what they need until the Legislature gets back into session."

More questions for MnDOT

The legislative hearings into the request became a forum for DFLers to press state transportation officials on their management of the department and on public accountability.

Kelliher indicated that process would continue at hearings that the legislative panel holds in November, December and January, saying she wanted to remove a "veil of secrecy" surrounding MnDOT practices.

McClung said the administration plans to renew its request for more spending authority in November, and DFL legislators said they would be willing to consider more spending if needed to keep projects on track.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

Pat Doyle •

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