Lawmakers turn up heat on MnDOT's financial problemsby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
DFL lawmakers continue their scrutiny of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MnDOT's finances and decisionmaking were the focus of two more legislative hearings Thursday.
St. Paul, Minn. — Legislators still haven't authorized the $195 million MnDOT officials say they need for the 35W bridge project. But they've managed to show the state agency is struggling with serious money problems. They also turned up the heat on transportation officials over another bridge project in the east metro area.
The panel charged with deciding MnDOT's funding request focused more on the agency's financial difficulties than on the reconstruction of the 35W bridge.
Transportation officials say the bridge rebuild is their top priority. But they've also warned other projects could be delayed without the $195 million authorization. The state is still waiting for most of the bridge money promised by the federal government.
State lawmakers say the 35W bridge will be rebuilt, but DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller is concerned MnDOT is running out of money.
"The fact that you're going from a $400 million reserve to $200 [million], and potentially go negative. Boy, you can't run a modern, complex state agency that way, and I just think that has to be addressed," said Pogemiller.
Pogemiller and other Democrats want Gov. Pawlenty to make sure MnDOT stays in the black by backing a transportation funding plan that includes a gas tax increase. Pawlenty vetoed two gas tax increases over the past three years, but reversed his stand after the bridge collapse.
The Republican governor and DFL leaders have still been unable to reach an agreement on transportation funding.
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also serves as state transportation commissioner, blamed her agency's financial problems squarely on the bridge and its updated price tag of $395 million. Molnau denies MnDOT would have run out of money even if the bridge hadn't collapsed.
"I'm not sure that's exactly true. I think people talk about the cash flow balance, or the cash on hand balance and those sorts of things, and conflict them. We were managing all of that. We, by law, cannot go in the red," said Molnau.
Instead, MnDOT officials say they would delay road projects, cut back on road maintenance, cancel purchases and borrow money from the Department of Finance. The legislative panel will meet again next week to discuss the authorization.
The House Commerce Committee is trying to get answers from MnDOT about another bridge. That committee held a separate hearing on the long-delayed Wakota Bridge, a planned double span over the Mississippi River between South St. Paul and Newport.
Design flaws and contract disputes have brought construction of the half-built bridge to a standstill.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, says he's not on a witch hunt, but simply wants to know what went wrong with the Wakota project.
"It looks like one misstep after another. The project cost for the two spans of the bridge is going to be doubled. The cost to commuters is going to be in the neighborhood of an additional $50 million to drivers and businesses. It's a fiasco," said Atkins.
Atkins accused MnDOT officials of deliberately withholding documents from his committee. He backed down from a threat to issue subpoenas after Republicans on the committee objected.
Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, also objected to the content of the hearing. He says the commerce committee is overstepping its authority by debating transportation policy.
"The flavor, the content -- what we were talking about, I think most definitely had a political tone to it," said Zellers. "I'm all for getting the biggest bang for the taxpayer dollar, but that's the purview of the transportation committee. And I'm not even sure we got an answer to the question -- what has the transportation committee done with this issue?"
Part of the Commerce Committee hearing focused on a recent report critical of MnDOT decisions on the Wakota project.
An independent mediation board ruled in August that Commissioner Molnau improperly halted construction of the bridge, and put MnDOT in breach of contract with the builder by refusing to explain why. Molnau told lawmakers she stands by her action.
Molnau also stands by her job performance. Despite DFL calls for her resignation, Molnau said she will not step down as transportation commissioner.
Tim Pugmire covers politics and state government for MPR News.