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Has the tide turned on transportation commitment?

A 1,200-pound slab of concrete veneer falling on cars from a freeway overpass might have gotten less attention in Minnesota but for its timing six days from today’s anniversary of the I-35W bridge disaster. This time, thank God, no one was hurt, although a couple of cars were damaged and traffic was backed up for hours.

But the partial failure of the Interstate Hwy. 35E Maryland Avenue overpass in St. Paul on Saturday can only reinforce Minnesotans’ fears over the state’s crumbling public infrastructure. And it should raise new questions about the adequacy of road and bridge funding as well as the state’s system of triage for prioritizing new and replacement highway projects.

Replacement of the 50-year-old Maryland overpass has been on Minnesota Department of Transportation drawing boards for years, now scheduled for 2014 as part of a $200 million reconstruction of 35E that will include a new Cayuga Bridge nearby.

Both the Maryland and Cayuga spans, traversed by 140,000 vehicles on an average weekday, are rated as structurally deficient. Federal matching funds to replace them have long been available, but MnDOT chose other projects for first dibs on its scarce resources. Even in hindsight, it’s hard to fault the agency for that. As state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told the Star Tribune, the steel beam structure of the overpass is intact and safe, and only some concrete coating worked loose due to age, weather and road salt. “For 50-year-old concrete, that’s the type of deterioration you often see,” Dorgan said.

How often? Probably more so than most Minnesota drivers would care to dwell on. Our state has 1,134 bridges listed as structurally deficient, or 9 percent of the total.

A question of money

There’s one way to rectify this: more money. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported Monday that the nation needs to devote at least $140 billion in new funding to the repair, maintenance and replacement of aging bridges. It called for increased tax and toll revenues to meet that challenge. But years of starving government in the service of the no new taxes ideology have left us all driving on or under 50-year-old concrete.

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning. Last week the U.S. House overwhelmingly added $1 billion to President Bush’s request for $39.4 billion in federal aid to states for roads and bridges. The bill also would keep states from diverting federal bridge funds to other priorities, as Minnesota has done in recent years, until every federal highway span in the state is up to snuff.

Minnesota’s share of the extra $1 billion would come to just $7.3 million, or about 3 percent of the cost of the new 35W bridge. So the task remains daunting, even with the early steps by Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.

MnDOT, for example, got $2.3 billion in new trunk highway funding over 10 years with the override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto in February. Here’s MnDOT’s estimate of the trunk system’s needs through 2014, when the 35E project is set: $2.4 billion every year.

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, toured the 35W bridge construction site last week and praised its speedy progress toward a possible September opening to traffic.

“But we owe the victims and the survivors of the tragedy much more than a new bridge,” he said. “We owe them a new bridge policy that ensures that the traveling public is safe.”

Conrad deFiebre is a transportation fellow at Minnesota 2020, a think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/03/2008 - 09:30 am.

    The problem is not only a lack of money. Its a lack of maintenance of the current infrastructure which leads to the need for expensive reconstruction projects. That is a result of making new capacity a priority over maintaining the existing roadways.

    The problem is that MnDOT is largely run by highway engineers. Maintaining and patching existing infrastucture to extend its life is not nearly as interesting as reconstructing it to “modern” standards or replacing it entirely with newly built facility. And political leaders are much more inclined to give money for something new that they can claim credit for rather than for mundane maintenance which is only missed when something fails.

    The even larger problem is that Minnesota continues to chase its tail when it comes to transportation. Adding capacity that leads to more traffic which adds congestion elsewhere. MnDOT seems determined to continue and grow that auto-dependence. They have destroyed virtually every small town in Minnesota that has a state highway running through in their efforts to move traffic efficiently at the expense of the community’s livability. They have made the Twin Cities into congestion nightmare with new capacity that just adds to congestion somewhere else.

    Its time to break MnDOT up. There should be an agency responsible for maintenance separate from the road builders. And there should be an agency whose focus is on reducing traffic and congestion, rather than creating it. The problem is with the state’s transportation priorities, the money is a secondary issue.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 08/05/2008 - 06:54 am.

    Without regard to how the bureaucracy is organized (the old “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” metaphor comes to mind), at the end of it all, someone has to either fix a bridge or road, or oversee the construction of a new one. Current budget projections show a budget shortfall of somewhere in the $1 billion to $2 billion range for the next biennium. Roads and bridges will be squaring off against schools, health care, welfare, etc.

    Also remember that major highway construction projects are generally in the bonding bill and are separate from agency operating budgets. Construction companies are the ones who push for the new construction in bonding bills since it means jobs for their workers and their subcontractors. A “new” project generates additional tax revenues when the workers are here and not elsewhere. Or unemployed.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 08/04/2008 - 07:23 am.

    I can agree with the premise that maintenance of existing infrastructure is not as sexy or lucrative as maintenance. But splitting MnDOT into two agencies?? The last thing this state needs is more bureaucracy.

    If you did split MnDOT into two agencies, you would have competition between the two agencies slugging it out for “new” versus “used.” We all would be the losers in that deal.

  4. Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/04/2008 - 07:19 pm.

    “an agency that has long been the playground for many governors and legislators.”

    I agree that is part of the problem. My point is that there are already battles, but they get settled internally. That actually facilitates the tendency of politicians to prefer high profile projects over more mundane investment.

    I have heard legislative leaders talk about the importance of more money for “fixing potholes” when what they actually funded was some new highway somewhere. They are hiding the reality in the details of the agency budget. That would be much more difficult if the two functions were separated.

  5. Submitted by John Olson on 08/04/2008 - 01:06 pm.

    Generally, I would agree with you that competition is “good.” The problem is that this is government we are talking about and, specifically, an agency that has long been the playground for many governors and legislators.

  6. Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/04/2008 - 08:10 am.

    John –

    I don’t think you necessarily increase bureaucracy by flattening it. And competition is not a bad thing either. Maintenance and non-engineering solutions are always going to lose internal battles over resources at MnDOT. The decision makers are heavily vested in sustaining their highly-trained engineering staff.

    Take the example above. We have concrete falling off a structurally sound bridge that is scheduled to be replaced. Essentially the plan is to build a new bridge instead of maintaining the one that exists. A new bridge may, in this case, be the correct decision. But it appears the existing bridge is still good to go with proper maintenance and repairs.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/08/2008 - 02:03 pm.

    What ever became of the millions of dollars the “Minnesota Transportation Alliance” (aka the DFL and unions) assured us would be pouring into our infrastructure when we agreed to amend the Minnesota constitution to dedicate money to transportation?


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