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Friday, September 01, 2006

Pawlenty's Shell Game With Public Funds Slows Progress (again)

Thanks, Governor.

No Crosstown fix in '06
A year has been lost for rebuilding the junction of Crosstown Hwy. 62 and 35W because of contractors' reluctance to bid.
Laurie Blake, Star Tribune

The Crosstown project is officially dead for this year.
Officials thought they could rescue the long-awaited fix for the Twin Cities' biggest traffic snarl after road builders balked at bidding on the work in June.

But Thursday, Bob McFarlin, assistant to the state transportation commissioner, admitted that work on the new junction of Crosstown Hwy. 62 and Interstate Hwy. 35W has been pushed to spring 2007.

"We have been at it very hard," he said, "but we ran out of time for this construction season."

The new delay deflated commuter Aaron Laffin of Richfield, who estimates that he wastes 10 to 15 minutes each day at the notorious interchange.

"I was hoping that the DOT would be able to figure this out," Laffin said. "It's disappointing because Crosstown is probably one of the worst bottlenecks in Minnesota. There are other things that are getting cleaned up that aren't as bad."

The intertwined freeways on the border of Richfield and Minneapolis daily entangle nearly a quarter-million drivers -- who are headed to work and across town, to ballgames and cultural events, to the airport and the Mall of America -- resulting in congestion and frustrated drivers cutting ahead of each other.

Construction had been set to begin this summer after more than a decade of design and redesign.

But the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) lacked money and asked contractors to front $90 million to get it started. Funds for the project are promised by the federal government, but most would come during the latter half of construction.

Road builders initially reacted badly to that proposal and in the end declined to bid for the job because they found the state's $250 million budget for the project unrealistically low.

Feeling the weight of public disappointment, MnDOT scrambled to regroup and try to get the project ready for a second round of bidding this year. And Gov. Tim Pawlenty promised to get the project going again as quickly as possible.

But contractors want more time to gear up for the project, and the Federal Highway Administration is scrutinizing the revised budget estimate to make sure it will draw bids next time.

The upshot is that the project is not ready to go, McFarlin said.

That drew criticism from Rep. Dan Larson, DFL-Bloomington, who said he worries that MnDOT's spring start date might be too optimistic.

"I think we are to the point where we are not sure what we can believe coming from the administration on this," Larson said. "The delay is now far beyond what we had expected."

The delay also assures that the project will be a topic of discussion at the Legislature in 2007, Larson said.

"I am disappointed the governor didn't call a special session for us to address this," he said.

Funding decisions

McFarlin said that no final decisions about the financing plan, scope and duration of the project would be made until after voters decide Nov. 7 whether to amend the state Constitution to send more money to transportation.

The proposal would phase in a full dedication of motor vehicle sales taxes to roads and transit. Proponents tout it as a method that doesn't raise taxes, but critics say it would shift hundreds of millions of dollars from other services.

McFarlin said that when the project does get going again, it is likely that either the state will borrow money itself to cover costs until expected federal funds are received or MnDOT may once again ask contractors to front some of the money.

He said the delay also means that the cost of steel and fuel and other materials will rise and that the project will cost more.

Said McFarlin: "We will have to find more money somehow."

It's outrageous to expect contractors to act as a 'bank'.

Note that the Governor didn't ask the companies who might be involved in building the Twins Stadium to self-finance. He was more than happy to ask the voters of Hennepin County to pony up.

Eva adds: Actually Governor Pawlenty of Tax increases was more than happy to give the voters of Hennepin County no choice in the matter. He wasn't do interested in getting an ask provision in the final bill.