Bridge collapse renews focus on transportation funding debate

Gov. Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at a press conference regarding the collapsed Interstate 35 bridge Thursday in Minneapolis.
David Lienemann/Getty Images

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told reporters in Minneapolis Thursday morning the collapsed Interstate 35W span will be replaced as soon as possible.

"Once the debris removal takes place, that will allow us to begin the rebuilding process of this bridge," said Pawlenty. "We'll get to that in due course, but it's going to be a significant effort. We'll do whatever it takes to move this along on an emergency basis."

Span in the river
A span of the I-35W bridge rests in the Mississippi River.
Photo courtesy of Curtis Mackey

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a DFLer from Minnesota's 8th District and the chair of the House Transportation Committee, says he'll ask his colleagues before the summer recess for approval of $250 million to help speed bridge replacement.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman said there's emergency federal money available for rebuilding.

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"There's $100 million that's available for rebuilding. It's 1 percent from the federal government in the first 180 days. The fund where that money comes from has money in it, but it may well be used in other projects," said Coleman. "But on the House and Senate side we'll be moving forward to make sure that money is available. We will rebuild."

There was never any doubt the bridge will be replaced.

A former Minnesota transportation official says the total cost including demolition and new construction, could be $400 million.

Sen. Keith Langseth
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee. He says Gov. Pawlenty has ignored the maintenance needs of Minnesota's roads and bridges.
MPR file photo

However, two key Minnesota lawmakers are angry it's taken a disaster to get people's attention.

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, and chair of the House bonding committee, has many of the same questions as others about why the bridge collapsed.

"Did we do due diligence in our inspections, and our response to those inspections?" she asked.

Hausman cautions it is wise to wait for the investigation to supply answers about what caused the bridge collapse.

She is not willing, for example, to assert that years of deferred state transportation maintenance spending is a cause.

What makes her angry, she says, is the criticism aimed at her and other lawmakers who, over the years, have advocated spending more on repairing Minnesota's transportation infrastructure.

"He thinks he can just keep pushing this stuff off, whether it's by bonding rather than paying cash, or just not doing it."

"'It was more pork than Famous Dave's on the Fourth of July,' was the rhetoric of some people, and that doesn't help when we politicize investment in infrastructure that way," said Hausman.

State Sen. Keith Langseth, on the other hand, points directly at Gov. Pawlenty for not paying attention to the state's infrastructure needs.

"I've been in it for six governors. On infrastructure this one is the worst, without any question," said Langseth.

Langseth, a DFLer from Glyndon in northwestern Minnesota, chairs the powerful Senate bonding committee. He says the governor is responsible for ignoring transportation maintenance.

"He thinks he can just keep pushing this stuff off, whether it's by bonding rather than paying cash, or just not doing it," said Langseth. "He thinks he can get that beyond his tenure in office and just dump it on to somebody else, and it caught up with him."

Langseth's bitterness is part of a years-long confrontation between the governor and lawmakers.

There have been record-setting years of new road construction spending during the Pawlenty administration that the governor has supported.

Money for maintenance has not increased as fast, and in some cases has been diverted for new projects.

At the same time, the governor has been unwilling to increase the gas tax and other user fees to address what even members of his own party say are pressing transportation needs.

The I-35W bridge collapse investigation may reveal a structural defect is responsible. Or it may show that deferred maintenance played a role in a tragedy that has galvanized public attention, and is already sharpening the political debate over who is responsible.