MnDOT decision riles rural lawmakers

ST. PAUL -- Some rural Minnesota legislators are furious that the state skimmed the first $100 million from a new federal highway program to fill a Twin Cities' transportation funding hole.

ST. PAUL -- Some rural Minnesota legislators are furious that the state skimmed the first $100 million from a new federal highway program to fill a Twin Cities' transportation funding hole.

Lawmakers became riled when they discovered this week that the first money available from a federal highway construction program Congress approved late last year will help fill a $300 million gap for Twin Cities projects.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has transferred money from several funds to make up for the hole, which it blamed in part on a two-year delay by Congress approving a transportation funding bill.

Bob McFarlin, assistant to MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau, insisted that rural Minnesota projects will not be hurt. By the end of the federal program, 54 percent of the new federal money will be spent outside the Twin Cities if Congress follows through with appropriations it has promised, he said.

If Congress fully funds the federal highway program, MnDOT estimates it would receive more than $2 billion through 2010.


However, since Congress seldom appropriates all the money it says it will put into transportation bills, it is impossible to say how much money will be received and how much will be spent in rural Minnesota. That is what concerns rural legislators.

"Instead of trying to find fair solutions ... the governor grabs it from rural Minnesota and gives it to the metro area," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. "This is just blatant."

Marquart said he has heard Pawlenty administration promises before that money taken from rural Minnesota -- Local Government Aid, ethanol payments and increasing nursing home costs -- will be repaid. It seldom is, he added.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, blasted MnDOT after hearing about the $100 million decision.

"For three years, this administration has blamed everybody but itself for budget deficits and financial screw-ups," he said. "As a result, they've shortchanged our schools, our communities and now our roads.

"Everyone agrees we need to address the shortage of funding for transportation, the governor included," he added. "Unfortunately, it appears that politics and special interests trump the needs of the state as a whole."

The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee was one of the most irate.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said MnDOT came up $300 million short in highway construction projects because it mismanaged its budget. The state has never "been at the point of being broke where they are today," he said. "We have always been flush with money in our road fund."


The Legislature last year passed a controversial bill to raise gasoline taxes, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it. Lawmakers rejected a bill Pawlenty sought to borrow money to fund highway construction.

A Republican legislator fueled the controversy when he sent an e-mail message to colleagues.

"It seems to me, that since 2003 when funding is short, the answer has been to take it out of greater Minnesota and the core cities," Rep. Dan Dorman of Albert Lea wrote.

Tim Henkel, a MnDOT official for Twin Cities projects, said the department had no choice but to use the first federal funds in his area. They are "necessary to keep that metro program whole," he said.

Without the initial federal funds, and $200 million found elsewhere, projects such as a long-awaited Interstate 494 bridge between Dakota and Washington counties would be delayed.

McFarlin said legislators are premature in their criticism. MnDOT won't have a true breakdown of where federal money for state roads is spent until the four-year federal program ends, he said.

"It is a complicated financial management issue," he said. "When you look at the whole picture, greater Minnesota is not being targeted to have funds taken away from it to the benefit of the metropolitan area."

Juhnke disagreed with McFarlin's comments that outstate communities will not notice the shift and delay of federal funds flowing to rural state highways.


"There's a huge backlog of projects in rural Minnesota and it's making it harder and harder for rural communities to compete," Juhnke said. "Two-lane highways continue to serve as major transportation arteries between cities, leaving dangerous conditions where too many people have lost their lives in traffic accidents.

"The inadequacies of many of these arteries and their deteriorating conditions make it harder for rural communities to attract and retain good businesses. It also makes it harder for our existing businesses to compete."

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