Which projects get first dibs on transportation money?by Martiga Lohn, Associated Press
Now that the state Transportation Department has millions of new dollars to spend on repair and construction projects, it's time to decide which ones get done first.
St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Lawmakers offered visions of dirt piles, orange cones and freshly laid rail tracks before approving a $6.6 billion transportation plan over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's objections.
A day later, state transportation officials were tight-lipped about their plans for the cash.
The plan will pump an extra $775 million into the Minnesota Department of Transportation next year and $866 million the year after, a big bump for an agency that a former administrator described as anorexic.
"The department has basically been on a starvation diet for a long time, and the cupboards are bare in terms of projects that are ready to go," said Tim Worke, a former MnDOT official who now lobbies for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.
In other words: Don't expect major projects to get underway until the spring of 2009.
Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who is also lieutenant governor, did not name the top projects in a statement issued Monday, although she pledged to consider lawmakers' desire for bridge repairs, as well as a recent audit that found not enough was spent to maintain highways.
Leading candidates for work include Mississippi River crossings such as St. Paul's Lafayette Bridge and the ailing Hastings Bridge; accident-prone Highways 14 and 60 in southern Minnesota and the incomplete Highway 610 in the northern Twin Cities.
The plan includes $600 million in the next two years to fix or replace Minnesota's worst-rated bridges -- a priority after the deadly Interstate 35W bridge collapse in August.
But contractors need four to six months lead time on projects so they can order steel and other materials and line up equipment and subcontractors, Worke said. Minnesota's April-to-October construction season further limits their ability to speed projects up.
An Associated General Contractors of Minnesota survey last year showed that more than two-thirds of transportation contractors had nearly unlimited capacity to take on more projects, and some feared that they would lose skilled workers to layoffs or better opportunities without an infusion of infrastructure money.
Road builders also want some changes to a state law allowing projects to be designed and built simultaneously, after a $234 million contract to replace the Interstate 35W bridge went to the highest bidder with the longest timeline, based on other factors in the selection process.
For Twin Cities transit riders, the first blush of the new law will be invisible -- they won't pay higher fares or lose service. The plan includes nearly $31 million to smooth over a budget gap at Metro Transit, said Metropolitan Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld.
After that, it will be up to the boards of seven metropolitan counties to impose sales tax of a quarter-cent on the dollar and a $20 vehicle purchase tax.
If all seven do, they would raise $110 million a year to divvy up among light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail and park-and-ride projects.
Top contenders for the money: The Central Corridor light-rail line linking the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Southwest Corridor from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, a Minneapolis-Rogers line called Bottineau Boulevard and a bus rapid transit project on Interstate 35W from Minneapolis to Lakeville.
Reliable money should result in a Twin Cities bus-and-rail system reaching out to far-flung suburbs and beyond, said Sen. Scott Dibble, who pushed to include transit in the transportation plan.
"We should have a pretty good network across the region by 2020," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.
Still, others say the money will only go so far.
Legislative Auditor James Nobles found earlier this month that the transportation department would need an extra $350 million a year just to meet its goals for maintaining roads and bridges. That's not counting expensive projects like new roads and interchanges.
"It took 20 years for us to get in this situation, and we're not going to recover from it overnight," Worke said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)