Although U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters ordered all U.S. bridges similar to the I-35W that collapsed Aug. 1 reinspected, and most state governors required a broader examination within their states, there is still no concrete plan to fix Minnesota’s $17 billion accumulation of bridge and road repairs.
Negotiations for such a plan dissolved after less than a month of discussion between Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Democratic legislative leadership.
Although the replacement I-35W bridge is under way, the lingering debate could obstruct the progress of $200 million in other transportation projects.
The debate over the bridge’s repair is a far cry from the message elected officials delivered in the days after the collapse, when Pawlenty and legislators pledged to work together on a comprehensive transportation funding plan and the governor added he would consider breaking his 2002 no-new-tax pledge and hike the state's gasoline tax, which was last raised in 1988.
In negotiations for a special session, however, Pawlenty laid out strict limits, including making any gas tax hike temporary and offset by an income tax cut for residents in the state's lowest tax bracket, the governor told legislative leaders in an Aug. 10 e-mail.
Democrats objected to the income tax cut because it would mean cuts in general funds for things like education and other vital services, said state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (D).
Instead, legislative leaders proposed the same comprehensive transportation funding package that Pawlenty had vetoed during the 2007 regular session, which included new funding for mass transit. Pawlenty complained the measure was a non-starter and said Democrats were loading up the legislative plate with unnecessary taxes and fees.
It is uncertain whether Minnesota will be able to rebuild the bridge without delaying other transportation projects.
Minnesota state bridge inspector Bart Anderson said morale in the department is low because staff is constantly being asked to do more work with fewer resources. At the same time, costly private contractors are being hired to pick up the slack, he said.
The week before the bridge collapse, he said, the agency announced that it was considering eliminating one of the five bridge inspection teams responsible for bridges in the Twin Cities.
If elected officials cannot find a better way to fund transportation during the session, the issue could affect next year's elections, warned Rick Krueger, director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.
"If a solution is not found in the next session, the entire transportation community will make it a campaign issue and reward their friends and punish their enemies," he said.
The debate has also called into question the effectiveness of Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau (R). Molnau was appointed as transportation secretary, a previously nonexistent position, in 2003.
“The lieutenant governor…doesn’t have an adequate understanding or knowledge of transportation to hold that position (as secretary),” said Anderson.
In investigating the bridge collapse, Minnesota legislators uncovered evidence of "mismanagement" and a "funding crisis" at the department, said Kelliher.
The state Senate can vote to remove Molnau as transportation director. Kelliher supports a change of leadership for the department, saying it would help restore morale in the agency and the Legislature’s confidence in it.
"Combining the two jobs made sense back in the era of historic budget deficits, but not in the new era of the bridge collapse tragedy,” said Republican political consultant Sarah Janacek. “The tough public policy debate ahead requires leadership that can be focused and free from political encumbrances."
In an Oct. 11 television interview, Molnau said that her political position makes her a “lightning rod” for critics and that sometimes makes her job difficult. “If people wanted to focus on what really needs to get done, rather than the political side of it, we could accomplish a whole lot together very quickly,” she said.