MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The crumpled steel beams and shattered concrete of the Interstate 35W bridge are gone from the Mississippi River. These days, it’s the process of replacing the span that’s in disarray.
Two months after the bridge fell, the full cost of responding to the catastrophe and rebuilding the bridge has soared to nearly $400 million. And the project is at the center of a political skirmish as Democrats and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty fight over transportation money.
The battle threatens to delay more than 60 other road-construction projects, with money promised by the federal government still in limbo.
“That bridge is going to be built. We were told it’s the highest priority,” said Senate Majority Leader Pogemiller, a Minneapolis Democrat. “It’s other parts of the transportation network that will suffer if we somehow don’t figure out a way to apply one more Band-Aid.”
The bridge that collapsed Aug. 1, killing 13 people, was one of the state’s busiest, and officials want it replaced by the end of next year. Work on a new 10-lane bridge was scheduled to start in mid-October.
But the political tension that arose after the collapse is sure to spill over into next year, including questions about the competence of the state’s transportation commissioner, Carol Molnau.
Molnau has been hauled before lawmakers repeatedly to explain past decisions and steps being taken to build the new bridge. Several legislators, including the House speaker, say they’ve lost confidence in her and are calling for her resignation. If she doesn’t leave, leaders of the Democrat-controlled Senate say they will vote to remove her when next year’s session starts in February.
Molnau, who also is Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, said she won’t go willingly.
“It’s gotten very partisan and probably a bit mean,” she said after a testy hearing. “People do what people do, and that’s out of my control.”
Molnau’s critics say she has cut the Transportation Department too much and not been a forceful enough advocate for more spending. In addition, she’s been criticized for not ordering an emergency manager back from an out-of-state conference immediately after the bridge fell.
Molnau’s agency also came under fire from two losing bidders for the lucrative project who filed a formal complaint claiming the process was unfair. Molnau ultimately rejected the protest, but the contractors haven’t ruled out a lawsuit. Her agency hired two companies to share the work, even though their $234 million bid was $57 million above the lowest offer and would take longer than other proposals.
If the bridge is done ahead of schedule, Longmont, Colo.-based Flatiron Constructors Inc. and Seattle-based Manson Construction Co. could earn incentives of up to $27 million.
The Transportation Department has insisted the winning bid was a superior design, a sleek concrete bridge design shown to the public for the first time Oct. 8.
Among lawmakers, much of the rancor relates to money — or the lack of it.
Within days of the collapse, Congress responded with authorization for $250 million in emergency spending toward the disaster. But federal lawmakers haven’t allotted the actual cash.
So Minnesota is on the hook for bridge costs until the federal money arrives. But there’s not much wiggle room in the Transportation Department’s budget. In fact, the agency could go broke without legislative intervention.
That’s why Pawlenty asked an obscure panel of senior lawmakers to give him permission to temporarily pay bridge bills with money from other state accounts.
The request renewed a political feud over long-term transportation spending, with Democrats fuming about the potential for other road projects to be delayed or canceled if they don’t give Pawlenty what he wants. Three hearings have failed to resolve the matter.
The panel questioned Molnau and other officials for more than three hours Oct. 9, but took no action. Senior Democrats were considering a plan to give Molnau only some of the spending authority she sought, giving them more control over the transportation agency.
Pawlenty twice vetoed multi-billion-dollar transportation plans because they would have raised the gas tax and other fees motorists pay.
After the bridge fell, the governor reversed his opposition to a gas tax hike, but he asked for other tax cuts in return. Pawlenty and leading lawmakers couldn’t compromise this fall, meaning the issue will be central in next year’s legislative session.
Rick Krueger, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a coalition of business and labor groups, said the bridge collapse has drawn so much attention to the state’s road and bridge needs that politicians can’t wait much longer to deliver a substantial funding package.
“It’s hard to go anywhere, whether it’s a high school sports event or a neighborhood social activity, where people aren’t talking about transportation these days,” Krueger said. “Those who are viewed as impeding solutions are not going to be around anymore.”
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