Minnesota projects safe despite transportation act expiration

Minnesota transportation officials say no state road or bridge projects currently under construction or planned for the near future are threatened by the expiration at midnight of the federal transportation act.

However, unlike the past, an analyst says, transportation spending in this country is in uncharted waters because of a shortage of money.

In normal times, there would be nothing seismic about the expiration of the federal transportation act. The law expires and must be replaced every six years.

Abigail Mckenzie, director of Minnesota Department of Transportation's Office of Investment Management, said no state projects are jeopardized.

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"With continuing resolutions we can basically deliver the currently planned program."

"With continuing resolutions we can basically deliver the currently planned program," Mckenzie said.

There's a one-month continuing resolution built into the expiring law, which means no spending changes for 30 days.

Late Wednesday, Congressional staff said it now appears there's House and Senate agreement on a longer three-month extension. That means money at current spending levels continues to flow to states.

Well, most of the money. These are, after all, not normal times.

"There wasn't even $286 billion to fund the existing program," Robert Puentes a Brookings Institution transportation expert, said. "They had to move some money from general fund, so additional funds are scarce, to say the least."

Because there wasn't enough money for the current transportation act, there have been rescissions or cuts. The federal government has told states they can't send them quite as much money as promised.

The result is some states are screaming for help and scrambling to delay projects already on the drawing board.

Why not Minnesota?

MnDOT's Abigail Mckenzie said state officials anticipated the problems.

The expiring transportation act was delayed for two years with more than a dozen extensions of the previous law, and Mckenzie said the state anticipated federal money problems.

"We've been planning for it for essentially four years in anticipation of the end of the authorization bill," Mckenzie said.

Minnesota congressman James Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, is proposing a monster bill to replace the expiring one.

Oberstar's $500 billion proposal is controversial because, among many other features, would require states to account for their free spending ways with federal transportation dollars.

Also controversial will be finding a way to pay for a new transportation act.

The recession, changing driving patterns and more efficient vehicles have put a crimp in the country's transportation cash cow, gas tax revenues. The money crunch is causing a few states, including Minnesota to recalibrate their wish list for transportation spending.

Rob Puentes of the Brookings Institution said too many other states are assuming everything will be all right.

"I think there's this assumption that there's going to be a return to normal once the economy recovers and people start to drive again, money starts to flow," Puentes said. "But I don't think there's going to be a return to normal because what we saw in this country before really wasn't normal."

For example, Puentes said we can't expect a mushroom in the number of cars and drivers on the road like what we saw the past few decades with the influx of women to the work force.

That and other cultural changes caused gas tax revenue to rise, supplying lots more money for roads and bridges are history.

Minnesota is not completely escaping the impact of the federal transportation spending funk.

St. Cloud-area transportation officials, for example, have not even bothered to consider a proposed $12 million interchange at state Highway 15 and 33rd Avenue, which they say would improve traffic flow.

That and dozens of other local and state projects can take a decade or more to plan and carry out.

MnDOT's Abigail Mckenzie said it's too risky to plan for big projects in the future without a guaranteed source of money.

"We need to have some certainty, some clarity, about what our funding levels are," she said.

Congress and the President are busy with climate change, health care reform and foreign policy issues including a couple of wars; so clarity might not be coming anytime soon.

The White House and Senate leaders said earlier this summer their preference is to put off passing a new transportation act for a year and half.