Funding for new 35W bridge still unresolved

Heading for the scene
President Bush, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Mary Pawlenty toured the site of the 35W bridge collapse on Aug. 4. At that time, Bush assured residents that the federal government would help rebuild the bridge as quickly as possible.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Just four days after the I-35W bridge collapse, President Bush stood with emergency workers and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and made a promise.

"I'm here with the Secretary of Transportation because our message is: We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible."

But it's two months later and most of the money still hasn't come through. That's because the federal funding is a two-step process. Congress has to authorize the money, and then write the check.

The north side
The collapsed 35W bridge.
MPR Photo/Tom Crann

Congress has sent a check for $55 million of the promised $250 million. The rest of the money is entangled in federal budget negotiations.

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"I have no reason to believe that it's not going to come," says Minnesota Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson.

Hanson says he's been assured that the federal money will get here, but has no idea when.

As anyone in business knows, contractors prefer payments over promises. MnDOT officials hope construction can begin in mid-October, so they're asking state lawmakers to authorize $195 million to get the project going. Hanson says that money will be repaid once the federal money comes through.

"It is normally a process that happens, not only with transportation, but with other receipts of federal funds," says Hanson. "But more people are noticing now because it is the I-35W bridge and it's a bigger dollar amount."

In fact, the bridge's pricetag is getting even bigger. MnDOT officials announced last week that it will cost $393 million to rebuild the bridge, clean up debris from the old bridge and reroute traffic. That's $143 million more than initial projections.

"I'm here with the Secretary of Transportation because our message is: We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible."

It may seem like a no-brainer for the eight-member panel to authorize state money to pay for the bridge.

But some DFL lawmakers who sit on the committee say they want the full Legislature to make the decision. Others, like DFL Senate Majority Larry Pogemiller, say there could be a risk in authorizing the $195 million, especially if the state's budget outlook worsens.

"If you take money from the budget reserve or the bottom line, then you really haven't moved the ball forward, have you?" Pogemiller says. "You've solved this department's problems, but how about the next department's problems?"

Pogemiller says he isn't sure how the panel will rule on the request. But MNDOT will find the money for the bridge, even if the authorization is rejected.

MnDOT officials say they will delay other transportation projects and use the savings to pay for the bridge. The department says a master list has not been created but they are asking each transportation district to prioritize its projects.

DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher said last week that some lawmakers are nervous about their projects.

"I don't know that anyone should rest assured right now that projects will or won't be delayed, because I don't think we got particular answers on that question," Kelliher said.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller
Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and other Democrats say they're concerned that MnDOT doesn't have enough money to pay for the new bridge and all the other projects on its priority list.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

What complicates things even further is MnDOT's finances. Last week's hearings revealed that MnDOT is expected to run out of money later next year. Minnesota law says the department can't run a deficit, so MnDOT could be forced to delay road projects, cut back on road maintenance and forego purchases to stay in the black.

To make matters worse, there's no guarantee that the pricetag for the costs on the bridge will stick at $393 million.

Gov. Pawlenty wrote in a letter to some members of Minnesota's Congressional delegation that "the total costs associated with the bridge collapse and replacement are estimated to be over $393 million."

Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung says the administration will seek federal funding for most of the costs related to the bridge collapse.

"I don't want to say to you that this number is $393 [million] and that's it, it's never going to change," says McClung. "This is a process that they are continuing to work on, so it's possible that that number may go up over time. But we know for certain that we will be asking for more than $250 million."

But McCLung and others say there's no guarantee that anything above the promised $250 million will come quickly.

Even the start date for the bridge reconstruction seems to be in doubt.

Commissioner Molnau says she is waiting for a ruling by the Department of Administration before she signs a contract with Colorado-based Flatiron Construction.

Two of the local contractors have filed a protest with MnDOT's decision to hire Flatiron. They said they were misled by MnDOT regarding the bridge specifics.

MnDOT has refused to give any details on the bridge until the contract is signed. Until then, the public is left to wonder what the bridge will look like and how much bridge collapse will cost.