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Audit says MnDOT lacks funds

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Department of Transportation lacks funding to keep up with routine state highway and bridge maintenance and has paid for new projects while existing highway pavement has deteriorated, an audit concluded.

A report released Tuesday by the independent legislative auditor's office found MnDOT in recent years borrowed funds to pay for highway expansion projects, while neglecting to fund routine repairs on existing highways. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been a prime proponent of borrowing for transportation needs.

The audit also concluded MnDOT's project spending shifted beginning in 2003 and is not in line with its stated priorities.

"There are a few bright spots, but the overall picture is not good, and parts are downright grim," Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles told lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing.

The audit focused on the department's financing and work on 12,000 miles of road in the state highway system and 4,500 highway bridges. Lawmakers requested the audit following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse last August, but the report did not specifically study that collapse. It follows up on a similar report issued in 1997.

The audit came as legislators are engaged in an intense debate over a $7.69 billion transportation funding bill. Supporters of that plan cited the 105-page nonpartisan report as evidence their finance proposal must become law.

"Unfortunately for us it confirms the worst fears about the funding situation for roads and bridges in Minnesota," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said of the findings.

She continued: "We see this as a confirmation ... that to reverse this grim situation, we are going to need to increase the funding for our transportation system, and I think that this more than a lot of other evidence that's been before us is a true call to action."

Auditors said the cash-strapped agency's priority is to preserve existing roadways, but to do so in coming years it would have to use nearly all of its available state highway dollars, which would mean new roads could not be built.

MnDOT estimated annual preservation needs of $672 million beginning in 2012, but expects only to have $635 million to $700 million annually to spend.

"That's a tough situation to be in," said Deb Junod, the audit's project manager.

Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau agreed with the report's findings and said her agency already is implementing some of its recommendations.

"It's a good piece of work and it will benefit MnDOT," she said.

The audit found that while MnDOT officials almost always complete routine bridge inspections on time, it needs more money to timely complete in-depth reviews of so-called "fracture critical" bridges, which could collapse if one major component fails.

Also, auditors called the system for reporting bridge inspection findings to maintenance crews flawed.

Molnau, a Republican who also is the elected lieutenant governor, said MnDOT will develop a statewide system for tracking maintenance decisions following bridge inspections.

Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton, a legislative audit commission member, said he hears from local elected officials in western Minnesota that there is less money for road projects in those rural areas because of increased debt payments from a 2003 road and bridge borrowing program.

Molnau said each transportation district receives a portion of MnDOT funds, and one district does not lose funds to pay for a project elsewhere.

The audit found that MnDOT has done a good job of addressing serious bridge problems, but does not have enough money to keep up with routine maintenance on those bridges. It notes that the Twin Cities-area transportation district had fewer maintenance crews and bridge workers in 2007 than in 2001.

State Bridge Engineer Dan Dorgan said that is not the whole story. The overall number of maintenance crews actually has increased in recent years, he said, citing a combination of state employees and contractors.

Looking forward, Nobles said, policymakers should give MnDOT more funding and the agency should cut back on what projects it promises to complete. Also, he said, the department should do a better job estimating project costs.

In his report and in interviews, Nobles did not recommend how policymakers should provide more money to MnDOT, but said an agreement on new funding is needed. MnDOT has not seen a major influx of cash for road and bridge projects in at least two decades.

"We don't need a log jam or congestion here at the Legislature any longer," Nobles said. "We need the executive branch and the legislative branch to break through that and get something done, and I hope this report will help."

The report's Tuesday release was scheduled weeks ago and came just two days before the House and Senate are expected to vote on Democrats' transportation funding package. Republican votes will be needed in the House to override an expected governor's veto.

"If they read it, it might swing a couple of votes," Peterson said of the audit.