Cost of bridge collapse could reach $400 million

Proposed design
A rendering of the proposed design for the new I-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis.
Image courtesy of MnDOT

The new pricetag includes the cost of rebuilding the bridge, potential incentives for the contractor to finish early, and the cleanup of the collapsed bridge.

Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who also serves as lieutenant governor, says the revised projection will have an impact on the state's transportation budget.

Transportation commissioner
State Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau confers with legislative leaders as they consider a request for $195 million in emergency funds to begin reconstruction of the 35W bridge.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"This was a dollar amount that was not in my budget, obviously, and not in MnDOT's budget. And it's going to be paid out in a very compressed time frame, in 12 to 14 months, so it does have a huge impact yes. So that's why it's important to get authorization now," said Molnau.

That authorization by a special legislative panel would free up $195 million in state money for the reconstruction of the I-35W bridge.

Molnau's comments came during a hearing by the Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group, a panel of eight senior lawmakers. The Pawlenty administration is asking the panel to free up $195 million in case promised federal money doesn't come through in a timely manner.

President Bush and Congress have promised to pick up the costs of the reconstruction of the bridge, but that money is being held up in federal budget negotiations.

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Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson told committee members they should authorize the funding for the I-35W bridge as soon as possible. He expects the federal funding to come through eventually.

"We had a fairly unprecedented action by the U.S. Congress in almost record time, turned around and appropriated an authorization specifically for this project," said Hanson. "Rarely does an authorization get through Congress on a specific project."

"I don't think our constituents would appreciate the fact that eight people are spending $200 million. That's a decision that the whole Legislature should make."

Hanson is asking the legislative committee to approve spending state dollars for now so construction can begin in mid-October.

Without that approval, MnDOT officials say they would be forced to delay other unspecified road and bridge projects in order to get the bridge rebuilt by the end of 2008.

The debate over the best way to pay for the bridge construction stems from a larger dispute over the best way to fund transportation projects.

Gov. Pawlenty has vetoed two gas tax increases over the past three years. In the wake of the bridge collapse he indicated support for a gas tax increase, but negotiations with DFL legislative leaders failed to produce an agreement on an overall package.

DFL lawmakers, including Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Murphy of Red Wing, would like to see the governor call a special session to address transportation needs.

Murphy is a member of the Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group, but he says the full Legislature, not just a handful of lawmakers, should approve the funding in a special session.

"I don't think our constituents would appreciate the fact that eight people are spending $200 million. That's a decision that the whole Legislature should make," Murphy said.

Murphy and others also expressed concern that MnDOT's fund for highway projects is getting smaller and smaller.

DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher said she was surprised to learn that the total costs associated with the I-35W bridge have increased to nearly $400 million. She said the increase, along with a projected shortfall for road projects in fiscal year 2008, means the governor and lawmakers need to pass a comprehensive transportation funding package in a special session.

"Many people in this state believe when you're in a crisis situation, people should come together and actually have a legislative session devoted to this issue, and devoted to the long-term transportation needs of the state," said Kelliher. "This crisis is not going to go away for MnDOT, even if this authority were granted."

The committee members didn't indicate whether they would approve the MnDOT request. They are expected to hold another hearing later this week.