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Lawmakers face bridge-road choice

ST. PAUL -- A state transportation proposal could force rural lawmakers to choose between supporting a funding plan for the Interstate 35W bridge reconstruction project in Minneapolis and keeping statewide road projects on track next year.

An eight-member legislative panel - with four rural members - on Monday considered a $195 million spending request by Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau for bridge reconstruction.

Molnau, who also is the elected lieutenant governor, and other state officials claimed if MnDOT is not given authority to spend more than it was allotted prior to the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, the agency may use money that otherwise would be spent on road and bridge projects around the state.

Without additional funds, "there will be an impact on the program," Molnau warned.

The full Legislature authorized an additional $55 million in 35W bridge-related spending during a special session last month. With federal officials pledging $250 million in emergency aid following the bridge collapse, there remains $195 million that the Transportation Department seeks legislative approval to spend.

Lawmakers earlier this year approved a total of $551 million in regular state transportation spending.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy balked at MnDOT's warning of delayed local projects without additional spending authority. Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, on the Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group that can either approve or reject requests.

"There's no way that any legislator should vote for this," Murphy said, insisting it is illegal for the small panel to approve the request before federal money arrives in the state.

State Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson said there is precedent for the request. The federal government has promised to provide the remaining $195 million, he said, though it may not arrive until late this year.

"We have confidence that money will be received," said Hanson, a Mahnomen native.

Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton, one of two Republicans on the panel, said the request is legitimate because reconstruction of the Minneapolis bridge is important for the entire state.

"We've got a hole in our interstate system," Magnus said.

Another panel member, DFL Rep. Bernie Lieder of Crookston, said MnDOT will find funds to cover both early work on the bridge reconstruction and other planned transportation projects.

"Technically, that's going to be a little bit of a political game," Lieder said of the claim local projects will be sidelined. "They may not delay as many as they show. Then can screw around with their cash flow" to keep projects on schedule.

"That's real," Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, said of possible delayed projects. "They're not going to just make threats to try to get approval."

Lawmakers learned Monday the total cost for the I-35W bridge cleanup and reconstruction is pegged at almost $393 million -- nearly $150 million more than the federal government has said it will pay.

State tax dollars could be used to cover the difference, but department officials said Minnesota will seek additional federal assistance.

The latest estimate includes $234 million for a contract to build a new bridge, along with other costs. Part of the $393 million price tag includes $8 million to inspect bridges across Minnesota, which Pawlenty ordered after the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

Oberstar blames Pawlenty

Also on Monday, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar blamed the Pawlenty administration for failing to seek funds from a separate $175 million federal emergency account. Oberstar, a Chisholm Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said other states already have requested money from that account and Minnesota could miss out.

"If Minnesota doesn't get its request in formally, it goes to the back of the line," Oberstar said.

The Transportation Department is taking its cues from federal highway officials, is working with federal government on a daily basis and is seeking reimbursement for any eligible costs, McClung said.

"Congressman Oberstar's efforts would better be directed at getting Minnesota the $250 million that has been authorized but not yet delivered, rather than sending us a letter like this," he said.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, who led the legislative panel, said the hearing will continue, probably later this week.

She told Molnau and others that lawmakers have a lot to consider after learning that the Minneapolis bridge expenses "are much greater than we all knew" and that the Transportation Department "has a very serious cash flow problem that is imminent."

State officials acknowledged that without the authorization, other areas of the budget also could be trimmed. That could include cutting $18 million in maintenance equipment statewide, such as not updating its truck and snowplow fleet.

The average Minnesotan may notice that, said Lieder, the House transportation chairman

"It affects them directly," he said, "if they want to go to work and they haven't got the road plowed."

Murphy, who led a recent call for Molnau to resign, attempted to expand the conversation to include the department's overall funding situation. He said the agency faces $2.4 billion in annual project shortages if roads are to be built and repaired as needed.

"The bottom line appears to be that you just don't have enough money. What are we going to do about that?" Murphy asked Molnau, who he repeatedly referred to as "acting commissioner."