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Big win in federal transportation bill for Minnesota: Planning time

ST. PAUL -- More than $4 billion for transportation projects is headed from Washington to Minnesota in the next five years, but money is not the big news for state officials.Minnesota's take is part of a $305 billion funding bill that easily pass...

ST. PAUL - More than $4 billion for transportation projects is headed from Washington to Minnesota in the next five years, but money is not the big news for state officials.
Minnesota’s take is part of a $305 billion funding bill that easily passed the House and Senate late this week. It is the first long-term transportation package Congress has passed in a decade and a rare bipartisan effort in the current Congress.
However, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are quick to point out that the state already planned to get nearly that much federal money.
“This is basically flat,” MnDOT’s Serge Phillips said. “It is not a game changer.”
The federal money does give Minnesota a few percent increases each of the next five years, but Phillips said the big advantage is having a fair amount of certainty that the money will be available over that period. For years, states have not been able to count on federal money, which hurts planning.
“You can’t undertake a major project like replacing a bridge when Washington is changing the rules of the game every few months, and this bill is a needed step forward that will create jobs and start the process of improving our transportation infrastructure system,” U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said.
Phillips said that it will take time to sift through details of the bill, which President Barack Obama signed Friday afternoon.
Transportation funding is important to Minnesota, being a geographically rural state with lots of road miles. Also, it learned Aug. 1, 2007, the importance of maintaining roads and bridges when the Interstate 35W bridge fell into the Mississippi River.
“In Minnesota, we know all too well the importance of investing in our roads, bridges and transportation systems,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said.
Klobuchar sponsored several provisions in the bill, including one that requires federal transportation authorities to help state officials reduce safety risks of highway-railroad intersections. In Minnesota, concerns have increased in recent year as trains hauling North Dakota crude oil multiply and both increase risk of explosions and trains close to road intersections for long periods of time delaying public safety agencies’ response to emergencies.
Phillips said one section of the bill is devoted to hazardous materials transportation, which underscores the importance Congress placed on the topic.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., joined Klobuchar on getting two provisions in the bill. One would provide grants to states that are taking steps to reduce distracted driving.
The other Klobuchar-Hoeven provision makes it clear that a vehicle’s owner controls data collected by a “black box” that records several things about a vehicle’s operation, including speed and seat belt use. Insurance companies want the data after accidents to see if the driver was at fault.
Klobuchar also successfully inserted a provision that allows more states to get money for a program that phases teens into full driving privileges.
Also in the bill is a provision championed by Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., to change the law to allow heavy logging trucks to use Interstate 35 through Duluth instead of being forced to drive through downtown on Superior Street.
“This is such good news for all the pedestrians and drivers who navigate Superior Street through the winter months when the pavement gets icy and snow piles up high along the sides,” Nolan said.
The bill allows states to raise the weight limit on milk trucks, too. Peterson said that gives flexibility to the dairy industry.
It is unrelated to transportation, but the bill formally restores $3 billion in cuts to the federal crop insurance program. The cuts were in an earlier bill, but even before it passed, congressional leaders agreed to restore them.
“This bill fulfills that promise and will protect farmers from cuts that would have threatened the integrity of this vital safety net for rural America,” Peterson said.

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
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