Pawlenty downplays transportation funding questions

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says the complaints from DFLers about possible transportation project delays are based on a misunderstanding.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

MnDOT officials say they have a list of 200 road and bridge projects that could be delayed if they don't get additional spending authority to rebuild the 35W bridge.

The news angered Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, because the list reportedly includes the already delayed Wakota Bridge project in the east metro area. Saltzman says MnDOT officials previously assured lawmakers that the 35W bridge would not push back other projects.

"These projects need to go forward. Our public has been waiting on the Wakota bridge way too long," said Saltzman. "I still do not understand why we are two years behind, and yet we can build a new bridge in less than a year."

Rep. Tom Rukavina
DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia described the governor as "a master of diversion."
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

But Gov. Pawlenty says the complaints from Saltzman and other DFLers are based on a misunderstanding. MnDOT is still waiting for money promised -- but not yet delivered -- from the federal government to replace the 35W bridge.

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Since the Legislature is not in session, MnDOT needs approval from an eight-member legislative panel to exceed its current spending authority to spend the federal money once it arrives.

Pawlenty says the only snag would come if the Legislative Advisory Commission, or LAC, doesn't approve the request.

"So all of this hullabaloo about, 'Oh my goodness, all these other projects are going to be delayed,' is largely an unnecessary discussion," said the governor.

Pawlenty says he's not aware of any previous LAC requests this large. MnDOT is seeking an additional $195 million in spending authority. But he says the state has not previously faced a tragedy like the 35W bridge collapse.

"I still do not understand why we are two years behind [on the Wakota bridge project], and yet we can build a new [35W] bridge in less than a year."

Pawlenty says there's no legal or logical reason for lawmakers to block the request. He says it would be outrageous if they did.

"If this were a basketball game, it's a layup. And in the context of a crisis in the state, with all of the trauma and drama that we've been through, we shouldn't even be fussing about this," said Pawlenty. "It's people who aren't well-informed spouting off about this. And we should be working together to just get it done."

Pawlenty made his comments during a news conference to announce a new economic development initiative for rural Minnesota. His Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development, or SEED program, would provide tax credits, loans, grants and other assistance to small business owners and investors.

One rural legislator quickly dismissed the plan and accused the governor of trying to change the subject. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, described Pawlenty as "a master of diversion."

"Why does he need a new agency? Why does he need a press release? Why does he need to go around? Because he's got to get the attention off the fact that he's never addressed that bridge, when he promised the entire public that he would," said Rukavina.

The chairman of the Senate transportation committee questions the legality of the MnDOT spending request. Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, says he's troubled that the governor wants authority to spend federal money that Congress has not yet appropriated.

"So we just want to slow down a little bit, ask the governor to stop calling names. That's conduct unbecoming of a governor," said Murphy. "Just tell us what it is he wants. Put it on paper, let us see what it is. We'll kick it around. We'll do the right thing in the end. If it warrants $195 million in authorization, we'll give it to him. If it doesn't, we're not."

Murphy and other members of a special legislative panel plan to meet Monday to discuss the spending request with MnDOT officials. It's not clear if lawmakers will take a vote at that meeting.

In other bridge developments, a Minneapolis City Council committee has signed off on the state's planned replacement for the 35W bridge, on a vote of 5-1, with one abstention.

The state selected Flatiron Constructors Inc. and Manson Construction Co. to build a new bridge for $233.8 million by the end of 2008, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation needs the city's approval before the project can go ahead. The full council is expected to take up the bridge Oct. 5.

The city is still asking the transportation agency to address traffic accidents and safety for walkers and bikers at an exit on University Avenue. Another request is an opening for trains, trails and a street on the bridge's north end.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)