Rural Lawmakers Angry Over Roads

Sat January 28, 2006 - Midwest Edition
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ST. PAUL (AP) Some rural Minnesota lawmakers are angry that the state skimmed the first $100 million from a federal highway program to repair more roads in the Twin Cities area.

“Instead of trying to find fair solutions … the governor grabs it from rural Minnesota and gives it to the metro area,” Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. “This is just blatant.”

State Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing, MN, and Rep. Al Juhnke of Willmar, MN, both DFLers, released a statement criticizing the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) decisions to plug a $300-million hole in its budget for metropolitan road projects.

The department borrowed $50 million from a Metropolitan Council committee and moved another $250 million within its own budget that could potentially have gone to outstate road projects.

“The bloodletting of rural Minnesota has got to stop,” Juhnke said.

But Bob McFarlin, assistant to Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, said rural Minnesota projects will not be hurt.

By the end of the federal program, 54 percent of the new federal money will be spent outside the Twin Cities if Congress follows through with appropriations it promised, he said.

“It is a complicated financial management issue,” he said. “When you look at the whole picture, greater Minnesota is not being targeted to have funds taken away from it to the benefit of the metropolitan area.”

MnDOT estimated the state will receive more than $2 billion through 2010 if Congress fully funds the federal highway program.

Murphy said the Transportation Department came up $300 million short in highway construction projects because it mismanaged its budget.

Tim Henkel, a MnDOT official for Twin Cities projects, said the department had no choice but to use the first federal funds in his area.

They are “necessary to keep that metro program whole,” he said.

Without the federal money and $200 million found elsewhere, projects such as a long-awaited Interstate 494 bridge between Dakota and Washington counties would be delayed.

Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said that he was angered by MnDOT’s decision, too.

“We’e getting an increase in federal funding from the state, but they’re cutting the percentage going to rural areas,” he said. “This is not a partisan problem between Republicans and Democrats. Both sides will probably try to blame each other, but its a problem in transportation this state has, which is metro versus rural.”

The jousting is a preview of the metro-rural battle that likely will come up in the next legislative session in debates on the bonding bill, highway and mass transit funding bills and the proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee money from the motor vehicle sales tax for transit and highways.

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Lakeville Republican and chairwoman of the transportation finance committee, said it was “understandable they would have those concerns” but the metropolitan area has a crisis in safety and congestion on its roads.

While Murphy and Juhnke lamented Pawlenty’s veto of a bill to raise the gas tax 10 cents a gallon, Holberg said there is plenty of money in Minnesota’s state budget without raising taxes.

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