Special session not all clear sailing

ST. PAUL -- The Interstate 35W bridge collapse may have shattered a logjam that long has prevented increased transportation funding. But those logs remain floating and still could sink what on the surface appears to be clear sailing for a transpo...

ST. PAUL -- The Interstate 35W bridge collapse may have shattered a logjam that long has prevented increased transportation funding.

But those logs remain floating and still could sink what on the surface appears to be clear sailing for a transportation funding infusion.

Questions about how to raise transportation money and how much to raise remain unanswered, and in a large part undiscussed since the Aug. 1 collapse.

The disaster focused attention on the need to in-crease road, bridge and transit funding.

Rick Krue-ger, executive director of the Transportation Alliance, said the public will watch how policymakers such as Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators deal with the disaster: "If there is not a solution to this, it is going to be a pox on everybody's house. It would be ineptness beyond what the voters will tolerate."


Pawlenty said he expects to call a special legislative session to deal with the issue after Labor Day, but much work remains before lawmakers are ready for what the governor and leaders hope is a short session.

A generally accepted figure of what is needed to bring the state's transportation funding up to where it should be is $1.7 billion more a year. A bill legislators passed, but Pawlenty vetoed, earlier this year would have produced $700 million.

A special session can be expected to result in something between those two figures.

"We have to be realistic and have to realize what the governor will accept," said veteran House transportation Chairman Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston.

There are signs Republican opposition to tax increases, such as raising the gasoline tax, is crumbling after the collapse. Pawlenty said even before the collapse he was considering an about-face and backing a gasoline tax increase.

"I am sensing that from the legislative folks, this is kind of a wake-up call when you look at the safety issue," Rep. Doug Magnus said. "When a bridge fails, it's a catastrophe."

Magnus, top Republican on Lieder's committee, said he would support a "moderate" gas tax hike of up to 7 cents per gallon as part of a larger funding package. More state borrowing for road and bridge projects also should be considered, he said, but there is concern among the GOP about spending too much.

One stumbling block to raising the gasoline tax is the public. A poll commissioned by two television stations, KSTP in the Twin Cities and WDIO in Duluth, after the bridge collapse showed 57 percent of Minnesotans surveyed do not favor increasing the tax. And of those who would back a tax increase, about half would not go for more than a nickel a gallon increase.


Minnesota's gasoline tax has been 20 cents a gallon since 1988.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, Minnesota's transportation commissioner, said the state would have to increase the gasoline tax 30 cents to 35 cents if it were going to provide enough funding for all transportation's needs.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, predicted there would be enough votes in the House to pass whatever transportation bill Pawlenty and top Democrats agree to.

"They're going to have to exercise some restraint," Seifert said of transportation advocates pushing for big spending increases.

The Senate's top transportation member, Sen. Steve Murphy, said all revenue cannot be raised by a gas tax alone, but a considerable part of the $1.7 billion must be approved.

The Red Wing Democrat proposes not only a gas tax increase, but also upping license plate fees as well as other forms of revenue.

The average family may pay $50 more a month in transportation taxes and fees, Murphy said. "OK, so you don't get to stop at Starbucks or Caribou Coffee every morning."

"Unless we are willing to go 65-70 percent of the way (to $1.7 billion), we are just kind of fooling ourselves," Murphy said. "People are tuned in here. They want political leadership. They don't want people who are going to patty-cake this."


Murphy is a frequent advocate for rural road funding because 70 percent of fatal accidents occur there.

Lieder and Murphy said they are not concerned about rural areas losing money to the Twin Cities, for two reasons -- a newly developed funding formula is fair to all counties and as key committee chairmen they would not allow rural Minnesota to be cheated.

Not all legislators expect Pawlenty to call them back to work this fall.

"I'm not optimistic there will be a special session," Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

He questioned whether Pawlenty and Democratic legislative leaders can reach a deal.

Bakk said there should be a special session.

"The fundamental purpose of government is trying to make the public feel safe," the senator said. "When they are driving over bridges, wondering if they are going to fall into the river is a fundamental question."

Bakk wants a three-day session, to give committees time to debate transportation funding in public. Others expect a one-day session to approve a deal worked out by Pawlenty and their leaders.


"There is this concern about the safety of our bridges; the public has got to get a good idea what the Legislature is proposing," Bakk said.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor is having "ongoing communications" with lawmakers.

"We need to agree to the duration of the special session and have an agreement regarding the issues to be addressed," McClung said.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, met with Pawlenty Friday, and McClung said talks with other lawmakers will continue.

"There's no rush to this," he said.

The transportation bill legislators could see in September might look a lot like the proposal they approved earlier this year, Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said.

The 35W disaster could shed light on a variety of infrastructure problems around the state, Juhnke said, including roads, schools and sewers.

"I think what it's done is taken a nonsexy issue -- infrastructure -- and turned it into more of a legislative priority," he said.


The Minneapolis bridge collapse also has caught the attention of policymakers outside Minnesota, said Juhnke, who recently attended a state legislators' conference in Boston.

"I don't think there's a state that isn't paying attention to transportation infrastructure," he said.

Magnus, who represents a chunk of southwestern Minnesota, said a transportation package should include a plan to borrow up to $2 billion. That money should be targeted to specific projects around the state, including repairs to Highways 14 and 60 in southern Minnesota.

Murphy, who has been understated since the bridge collapse, showed some of the fire for which he is known when discussing funding.

"Whether we totally extinguish their needs, that is up to the governor," he said.

However, he quickly added that Pawlenty has been good to work with in recent weeks as they discussed possible transportation funding alternatives.

Krueger, a former Alexandria-area legislator, said if there is no special session, lawmakers have a ready-made option when they convene for the 2008 session on Feb. 12. They can try to override Pawlenty's transportation funding veto from earlier this year, and in the new circumstances, Krueger said, lawmakers are likely to approve the measure.

Democrats, especially, want to raise and spend more than the vetoed 2006 bill did.


"In light of this bridge collapse, I think it is the floor of this discussion," Krueger said.

Some projects cost $500 million by themselves, so $700 million is not enough, he said.

"Anyone who is not living in a cave had better start realizing there is a huge infrastructure problem," Krueger said. "You can't go 30 years without reinvesting, which is essentially what we have done."

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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