On his way to a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting the weekend of Sept. 15 to discuss the collapse of the I-35W bridge, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he found himself filled with dread and embarrassment.
"I'm going to have to walk in there and tell them that our state is doing nothing" on bridge repair, he said. "Other states are taking this seriously, but our state, where people died, is doing nothing."
Many thought that after the Aug. 1 collapse, the state of Minnesota’s roads and bridges would be examined and addressed. However, the flash flooding in southeastern Minnesota, a few weeks after the bridge collapse, took much of the state’s attention.
"We just had the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, we just had the floods in southern Minnesota. You start looking at emergency responses, you look at ambulances, you look at fire, you look at police—that just straps the heck out of those when you don't have those dollars available," said Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, who is also president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
The U.S. Senate recently approved an extra $1 billion bill for bridge repair. But at the Minnesota Legislature’s special session Sept. 11, the main outcome was a narrowly targeted bill that mainly gave about $157 million to help with repairs from the flood.
That was far less than what Gov. Tim Pawlenty had suggested was in store when he stood near the collapsed bridge and predicted a special session that could include a gas tax increase, a transportation bill, a bonding bill and property tax relief.
Taxes proved a major obstacle to Pawlenty’s suggestion. Even though Pawlenty said he would consider a nickel-a-gallon increase, he wanted an offsetting cut in income taxes.
That would have provided money for roads and bridges, but would have reduced funds for health care and schools—unacceptable to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.
Pawlenty said DFLers tried to load up the gas tax package with all the optional extras—increased fees for license tabs, a half-cent metro sales tax and a possible outstate sales tax.
"The real reason transportation discussions were reaching an impasse is due to the DFL's insistence on massive tax hikes to fund big, urban transit projects," said the governor's spokesman, Brian McClung.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty has fallen short of his responsibility to set the agenda on bridge funding. "How many more bridges in the state of Minnesota have to fall before the public starts screaming for the governor to act like a governor?" said Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
"This past year we were very close to overriding a veto," Murphy said. "Now, with the collapse of the bridge, people have paid more attention to transportation. People are demanding that those bridges get fixed."
Rybak said he "can't comprehend" how weeks of negotiations among Pawlenty and top legislators could have resulted in a special session that dealt with only one of the state's two top summer disasters.
"Nobody's saying there shouldn't have been flood relief," Rybak said. "But how could we not do anything for bridges? When you step back, it's shocking."