MnDOT unveils 2011 construction projects

Road construction between Minneapolis and St. Paul
Construction of the Crosstown commons in south Minneapolis in a file photo. While that project is finished, MnDOT announced Wednesday its road construction projects for 2011, totaling nearly $900 million.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The Minnesota Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced its road construction projects for 2011, totaling nearly $900 million.

State transportation officials said this year's road and bridge spending will be lower than last year's nearly $1.3 billion outlay, a record.

Part of the reason is that last year's federal stimulus dollars are mostly spent. Another reason is that gas tax revenue is barely meeting projection, as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

Still, Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said the spending on 258 projects is significant.

"We had kind of a spike here in the past couple of years because of the stimulus dollars," said Sorel. "This is still a very large program, one of the largest we've had in our history."

On the list is a major road repair project on Interstate 35 north of the Twin Cities. MnDOT spokesman Tom O'Keefe said the project from Highway 96 to near Forest Lake will slow down traffic until the project is complete this fall.

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"This project will restrict traffic to one lane in each direction from approximately mid-June through mid-November," O'Keefe said. "We do have significant incentives for the contractor to reduce that time but this will be, you know, a big traffic impact."

One of the improvements is a new 10-inch layer of concrete roadbed from just north of the Twin Cities to near Forest Lake.

The project, costing about $170 million, is actually a series of projects on I-35 between the Twin Cities and into Duluth.

Gov. Mark Dayton
Officials say the 2011 construction season's total of nearly $900 million on 258 projects in Minnesota is one of the state's largest road and bridge expenditure amounts, but Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, seen here with MnDOT commissioner Tom Sorel on Wednesday, April 6, 2011, says that amount still doesn't address what he calls urgent state transportation projects however, he says, the political reality it's the money that is available.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

A new asphalt overlay on Interstate 94 from the border of St. Paul and Minneapolis to downtown Minneapolis will also delay traffic. That stretch of road is the state's second busiest roadway. MnDOT said it will mean some lane closures, and that stretch of I-94 will be closed to traffic some weekends.

It's the second and final year of construction on a project that started last year with a new road surface in St. Paul.

This year's spending also includes continuation of two huge bridge replacement projects over the Mississippi River — one at Hastings and the Lafayette bridge in St. Paul — costing more than $100 million each.

Another massive project with a price tag of about $172 million is the rebuilding of the Hwy. 169/Interstate 494 interchange in the southwest Twin Cities suburbs. It removes three stop lights and creates a freeway interchange that relieves a major rush hour bottleneck.

Even with the long list of construction projects slated for this year, Gov. Mark Dayton says the money being spent on the state's roads and bridges falls short of what's needed.

"I would like to see us be able to increase this significantly," Dayton said. "Of course, everything costs real money, and there's no more free money — federal stimulus money — so we're bound by the financial realities."

Dayton says he'll continue to search for additional revenue.

Most transportation spending comes from user fees, including gas tax revenue.

The money is constitutionally dedicated and separate from the current budget debate at the Capitol.

There'll be a bit of additional state gas tax revenue this year. A graduated 8.5-cent gas tax increase approved by lawmakers three years ago takes full effect this year.

That means motorists will be paying a total of about 56 cents a gallon in user fees — about 28 cents state and about 18 cents federal.

Margaret Donahoe, the head of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a lobby group whose members are from business, labor and government, said the revenue is barely keeping up with projection.

"At the federal level, where the gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993, we're actually seeing a decline in revenue," said Donahoe. "So without some kind of revenue increase, I'm afraid we're going to cuts in federal funding for highways."

Minnesota gets about $500 million a year in federal gas tax money.

Borrowing is another way to raise money.

This fiscal year MnDOT is spending about $245 million in borrowed dollars, which the state must eventually pay back.

MnDOT officials and others estimate annual spending is short at least $1 billion. They argue that's the amount of additional dollars needed to fix the state's aging 134,000 miles of federal, state and local roads.