Molnau warns road projects could get hung up in money fight

Carol Molnau
Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who also serves as lieutenant governor, said the federal government has already provided money, so she doesn't understand why lawmakers are hesitating on the request to authorize spending it.
MPR file photo/Tom Scheck

After several months of negotiating, it appears that the funding for the I-35W bridge is back to square one. The Pawlenty administration is asking a special panel of state lawmakers to allow the Transportation Department to increase its spending authority by $195 million.

The eight-member Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group declined the request, saying the department has enough money to keep road and bridge projects on track until lawmakers return in February.

Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who also serves as lieutenant governor, said the federal government has already provided the money, so she doesn't understand why lawmakers are hesitating on the request.

"If we don't have those dollars available to us, it's obvious that we're going to have to cut the programs somewhere or make some adjustments to which are the top priorities so we'll have our districts looking at what those would be," Molnau said.

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Molnau says MnDOT will begin working on a list of projects to delay. A department spokesman said no projects would be delayed if the cap were lifted by $85 million.

The debate over bridge funding has less to do with a lack of cash than with control of the purse strings. The federal government has promised to pay for most of the cost of the bridge collapse and building the new bridge. So far the feds have sent $178 million to Minnesota and Congress has promised another $195 million. Despite those promises, the panel of lawmakers has given MnDOT only an extra $113 in spending authority.

They have been reluctant to increase the cap because they have been worried about MnDOT's finances. Several members have also been deeply critical of Molnau.

The lead transportation expert in the Senate said he will effectively move to fire Molnau when lawmakers return in February. DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher has also called on Molnau to resign. Kelliher says she was surprised by Molnau's announcement of possible delays because others within MnDOT assured her that the agency's finances are stable.

"If they show us something that is really of concern, we would consider something more," the speaker said. "But we are not going to give them a blank check in the current condition that MnDOT is in and with the management issues that seem to exist in the management level."

Kelliher said the the panel is reluctant to give extra authority until lawmakers return for the 2008 session in February.

One of the Republicans on the special panel doesn't understand the delay. Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slatyon, said MnDOT should get the spending authority right away, especially since there have been several meetings on rebuilding the bridge.

"The frustration that we have is that it's over and over and over again," Magnus said. "This is the ninth meeting that I've had on transportation issues since the bridge collapse. And I don't know how many we're going to have before session. By delaying any action here we're going to force ourselves into rapid response mode once session starts."

As lawmakers and the Pawlenty administration continue to wrangle over bridge funding, a separate committee will consider a compensation fund for bridge victims.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said they will discuss whether to raise the state's current limits on how much it can give victims of the collapse.

"There's nothing that the state can do that will ever restore the lives of the people who died or the health of the people who suffered or were injured but the state has some responsibility to take a look at this," Latz said.

Thirteen people died in the bridge collapse and more than 100 were injured.