Lisa Freese, a deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, talked about possible project delays in a conference call with state lawmakers. Freese said she doesn't know what the final cost of the bridge replacement would be, but said it could force them to divert money from other, unspecified projects.
"Until we know the true cost of building the replacement structure, it will be difficult for us to determine the effect that it will have on our highway program. However, it is safe to say that there will be some impact and that we may need to defer some things in order to get the new bridge in place," she said.
The news that other road projects could be delayed as a result of the bridge collapse came as a surprise to DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher of Minneapolis. Kelliher said it was unacceptable for MnDOT to delay other projects to get the I-35 bridge rebuilt.
In the legislative session that ended in May, Gov. Pawlenty vetoed a transportation funding package that included a seven-and-a-half-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to pay for new road and road construction as well as for the maintenance of the current infrastructure.
Kelliher, who worked to overturn the veto, said the I-35W bridge collapse shows a need to get more money into the system.
"This is a wake-up call and a call to action for all Minnesota legislators to take action and be able to do something that will begin to address the backlog of projects that are out there," she said Sunday.
Gov. Pawlenty and state lawmakers have been in a bitter dispute over the best way to finance road and bridge construction. Pawlenty has supported borrowing to pay for the projects and said new road construction has occurred at a record-setting pace during his administration.
A majority of state lawmakers in both the House and Senate back a gas-tax increase and other user fees to get more money into the system right away. Pawlenty said on WCCO-TV that he is now willing to accept a gas tax increase.
"I have said that I am willing to put everything on the table or to explore all options, but I would also expect and hope that my friends on the other side of the aisle would take some of my ideas and suggestions and put together a package that we all think is good for Minnesota," the governor said.
GOP House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall says he thinks that package will help avoid the delays MnDOT is talking about. Seifert says MnDOT should be focused on replacing the bridge first and foremost.
"The bridge that collapsed is the busiest bridge in the state of Minnesota, so we have to keep that all in mind," he said. "I would assume that should the Legislature come into special session, that whatever package is fashioned would immediately fast track the projects that are going to be delayed."
Freese, with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, also told state lawmakers that the agency will start accepting bids from construction companies that want to replace the I-35W bridge. She said MnDOT officials will narrow the list to three or four companies by the end of the week. Those companies would then submit design and cost packages in mid-August with a final contractor selected by mid-September.
That quick timeline was a concern to DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller. He told Friese that he was worried MnDOT officials may move ahead without fully consulting the Legislature.
"I think the Legislature needs to be kept in the loop before you start choosing contractors and narrowing down things," Pogemiller said. "And I don't know that this Wednesday vs. the following week or the week after is going to make much difference. I would be concerned though that you start making decisions before anyone has a chance to have input."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak also said that design and policy considerations should not be lost in a rush to build a new bridge. He and others want the new bridge to handle increased traffic as well as mass transit.