As digging starts, more funding on the way

  • Article by: Kevin Diaz and Patricia Lopez
  • Star Tribune
  • November 1, 2007 - 11:35 PM

With construction to rebuild the collapsed I-35W bridge barely started, Minnesota received welcome news on Thursday: the infusion of $123.5 million in federal emergency funds, released hours after groundbreaking had begun.

That money comes on top of the $250 million in funds initially promised by Washington, bringing the feds' total commitment to $373.5 million -- nearly the entire projected cost of the new bridge.

Not all of that money has arrived. Congress has yet to vote on $195 million in funding, an appropriation that remains locked in a transportation bill conference committee.

So far, the state has already received $55 million from the feds.

But in releasing Thursday's funds, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said the department "remains committed to paying the full cost of eligible repairs to rebuild the bridge," and would reimburse the state as additional costs were incurred.

The new funding also appears to resolve concerns that reconstruction costs might delay other construction projects, including the stalled Wakota bridge.

Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, said the total cost of the bridge replacement is estimated at $397 million.

Big, but not Katrina size

Thursday's action virtually drains the nation's transportation emergency account, which contained $175 million. Federal officials said the allocation is one of the largest emergency transportation aid packages of recent times, though not on the same scale as the billions of dollars provided for roads and bridges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Some analysts see the Bush administration's largesse in political terms, noting Minnesota's importance in next year's presidential election, both as a potential swing state and as the site of the Republican National Convention, where Pawlenty, a Bush ally, will play an important role.

"They can show that Republicans can manage well, which means we've learned from Katrina," said David Schultz, who teaches politics at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the new allocation means "our state will have enough funding to move ahead with construction of this vital project."

Oberstar crafted legislation after the bridge collapse lifting a $100 million cap on emergency relief disbursements to a single state.

Although the bridge money has wide support in both chambers of Congress and the White House, it has been bogged down in a larger spending battle between President Bush and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

Delays in that funding have sparked partisan wrangling. The three Minnesota Republicans in the House introduced their own bill allocating money for the bridge. Oberstar promptly accused them of posturing.

"In Congress, we're committed to rebuilding the I-35W bridge as quickly as possible," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who wrote the breakaway GOP bill. "We want to remove hurdles in the way of getting the job done, and this emergency funding brings us one step closer to our goal."

Oberstar, under fire over congressional funding delays, has also clashed with Pawlenty and Minnesota transportation officials, who he said were slow to make use of the available emergency funds.

The partisan rancor has also spilled into the Minnesota Legislature, where DFL legislative leaders recently balked at giving Pawlenty the legal authority to spend money not yet appropriated by Congress.

Without that authority, MnDOT officials said they might have to postpone construction on a slew of projects across the state, including the Wakota bridge.

McClung said Pawlenty now plans to go back to legislative leaders this month to seek spending authority for the emergency funds.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty now will get that authority.

"We've got the cash now," Murphy said. "That was always our concern -- giving the governor authority to spend cash we didn't have."

The emergency funding will make possible bridge reconstruction without delays of other projects, Murphy said, but it also removes any pressure for a special session that might have yielded a broader transportation bill.

Still, bad blood over the bridge funding is likely to remain. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, praised the emergency funding but added that "cash-flow issues and project delays continue to plague MnDOT."

40 workers begin rebuilding

On the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, bridge workers were well out of earshot of the political din. In fact, the noise of a 9-foot-wide auger boring into the earth drowned out even the sounds of the rushing river just yards away.

On a day considered to mark the official start of construction, the auger was beginning to create a 112-foot test shaft that will be filled with reinforcing rods, then concrete. Engineers will then perform pressure tests on the shaft before digging the actual shafts that will support the bridge's main footings and piers.

As the auger was being hoisted in and out of the hole by a crane, steelworkers nearby were assembling 50-foot-long cylindrical cages out of rebar. About 40 workers in all were on the site Thursday, the project's managers said.

Disputes over funding and the cause of the collapse were having little affect at ground level. "The main surprise we've had has been how cooperative everyone has been here in Minnesota," said Peter Sanderson, the project manager for Flatiron Constructors.

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753 Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288 Staff writer Jim Foti contributed to this report.

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