Widow of accident victim makes last-minute plea for Minn. transportation funding

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ST. PAUL—Beth Hodgman pleaded that southern Minnesota's U.S. 14 be made safer.

"Drivers make mistakes, but they shouldn't be life sentences," the West Concord widow told a Wednesday, April 19, rally seeking more state highway funding.

Hodgman's husband, Scott, died in 2012 on the highway, which legislators in the area for years have put at the top of their priorities.

"Scott's accident shouldn't have been fatal," Hodgman said. "If Highway 14 had been expanded to four lanes, it wouldn't have been."

Saying "safety can't wait," she joined other voices in asking that lawmakers spend money to improve highway safety. In front of the speaker were more than 400 traffic cones, representing the annual state highway death toll.

The transportation rally came four hours before House and Senate negotiators began looking at how to merge their different funding bills. At some point, Gov. Mark Dayton's administration will get involved to work out a compromise he can sign.

The transportation gathering was one of two at the state Capitol as Minnesotans see this as their last chance to weigh in on budget decision before lawmakers and the governor finish writing a two-year budget expected to hit $46 billion.

Hundreds gathered inside the Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass laws to protect the state's water and others issued statements and wrote letters supporting their causes.

The activity came as many of budget bills reached conference committees Wednesday.

The Dayton administration seemed to back away from the governor's Tuesday comments that he would accept Republican spending plans on transportation.

Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle told reporters after the transportation rally that he does not think Dayton has given up on his desire to raise the gasoline tax.

House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Dayton's Tuesday comments "gave me some real optimism. ... I would hope that the governor's remarks carry more weight than any commissioner. He was pretty clear."

Hodgman said those disputes need to end for the sake of people who travel on U.S. 14.

She noted that state leaders say they support increasing transportation funding. "Now show us you mean what you say."

Even though the southern Minnesota highway has been discussed for years, she said the work could be done quickly. It took little more than a year to replace the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in 2007, she said. Thirteen people died in that incident, while 45 have died on Highway 14 since the 1980s, she said.

A couple hours after Hogman spoke, clean-water supporters jammed the Capitol rotunda.

In a very brief talk, Dayton told them to let lawmakers know how they feel because many people who are heard in the Capitol represent special interests.

Vi Haldeman was one of 24 people from Duluth and Cloquet to travel in a bus to the Capitol, with others making the drive on their own, to lobby lawmakers on water issues.

He complained about a Republican bill to fast-track permitting of an oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. He said it would go through environmentally sensitive areas, and the public needs to be heard on the subject.

In the meantime, groups that support disabled Minnesotans said that a law change is needed so 15-year-old voting machines may be replaced.

"Voting machines like these are important because they allow all voters, regardless of abilities, to cast their ballot privately and autonomously," said Judy Sanders of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler also got in a last-minute pitch for full funding after lawmakers voted to lower the school's request.

"From our graduates, to our research, to our public service, the University of Minnesota is integrally woven into our shared prosperity..." he said. "Unfortunately, the proposed funding level by the Minnesota Legislature will certainly necessitate cutbacks in programs across the University—programs that serve Minnesotans."