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In the end, one fallen bridge was enough

Near the end of a forum last fall in Bloomington in which conservatives made clear their continuing opposition to new taxes for road, bridge and transit projects, Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, rose to ask a question.

Near the end of a forum last fall in Bloomington in which conservatives made clear their continuing opposition to new taxes for road, bridge and transit projects, Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, rose to ask a question. “Will it take another bridge to fall down?” he wondered. “Is that what it’s going to take?”

In the end, one fallen bridge was enough.

Erhardt and five other House Republicans joined 85 DFLers on Monday to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a 10-year $6.6 billion transportation bill. The bill was signed into law an hour later, after the Senate had concurred.

It was an earth-moving event in more ways than one. A rise in the gasoline tax will be the state’s first in 20 years. License tab fees will go up, too. And the sales tax will increase a quarter-cent in the seven-country metro area. The new money will loosen a big backlog of road and bridge repairs and construction, and will launch a series of rail and bus transit projects that will bring the Twin Cities into the 21st century.

“Gridlock gave way,” said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who negotiated the compromise with the state’s top business leaders to break the stalemate that had lasted for nearly two decades.

Pawlenty was clearly miffed, calling the Legislature’s action “ridiculous.” It demonstrated what Democrats do best, he said, and that’s raise taxes.

Ironically, as chairman of the National Governors Association, Pawlenty was at the White House on Monday, his group asking President Bush for more federal money for roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Pawlenty has tried to be a leader on climate change and clean energy nationally while opposing a leap in transit construction for his city.

Republican House leaders in St. Paul, meanwhile, vowed retribution against those party members who strayed.

Historical moment
“A huge amount of history was made today,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, a leader in the transportation effort.

The dedicated money for transit will, for the first time, make the Twin Cities a reliable partner for federal matching funds. The new law makes it possible for the region to actually start building the succession of eight transit lines it has planned for so long – including the Central line between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Southwest line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The new revenue, an extra $117 million a year, will also allow moving toward the goal of doubling bus ridership by 2020.

The vote was significant beyond the raw politics involved. For years Minnesota had struggled over whether it was best to compete on the basis of cost or quality. Transportation had become symbolic to that larger question.

Republicans generally favored the low-cost option, arguing that private investment, jobs and prosperity flow to lower-tax states. The DFL favored the quality angle, contending that public investments in education and infrastructure had transformed Minnesota from a state of average prosperity in the 1950s and early ’60s to a national leader. Reversing that trend wasn’t the answer, Democrats said. It’s unclear whether the Legislature’s action on transportation will carry over to education, health care, local government aid and other areas of conflict between the parties.

Twice in the last three years the DFL-led Legislature had passed transportation bills that raised taxes, but was unable to overcome Pawlenty’s veto. The governor’s popularity and his no-no-taxes ideology were too strong.

Turning points
That began to change last August. Neither the governor nor his transportation secretary, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, took any responsibility for the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. In retrospect, that seems bad form considering the mounting evidence that the Minnesota Department of Transportation was skimping on projects and maintenance and suffering other administrative shortcomings.

Last week’s report by the Legislative Auditor’s office confirmed a “downright grim” picture for transportation funding. MnDOT would soon have only enough money to fix roads and bridges, not build any new ones, the report said.

The big tactical turning point also came last week when business interests, including the influential Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, bolted from the governor to fashion a compromise that supported a smaller sales tax increase.

“There are a lot of mixed emotions around here,” Chamber President David Olson said after the vote. “It’s uncomfortable to go against the governor but we did what the majority of our members wanted.”

The lesson, Olson and others suggested, is that starving a system over a number of years makes a difficult remedy inevitable. Had the state kept pace with transportation needs a painful fix would not have been necessary.

The new law will fill about 25 percent of the state’s transportation shortfall, estimated at nearly $2.5 billion a year.