After tragedy, political resolve collapses

The Interstate 35 bridge in downtown Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1, causing Minnesota and nearly every other state to re-examine the condition of their transportation infrastructure. U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters ordered all similar bridges across the country re-inspected and most governors required a broader examination within their states

But that uproar hasn't yet translated into a plan to fix Minnesota's $17 billion backlog of bridge and road repairs. Negotiations for such a plan broke down after less than a month of heated discussions between the Democratic legislative leadership and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

While construction of a new bridge has already begun, the lingering political mess could derail $200 million in other transportation projects.

The bitter debate also raised questions about how the state's transportation department is being run by Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau (R), who was given an unprecedented dual role as transportation secretary in 2003.

"The lieutenant governor … doesn't have an adequate understanding or knowledge of transportation to hold that position (as secretary)," said Bart Andersen, a Minnesota state bridge inspector who testified to Congress on Oct. 23.

In investigating the bridge collapse, Minnesota legislators uncovered evidence of "mismanagement" and a "funding crisis" at the department, said state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (D).

The Democratic-controlled state Senate can vote to remove Molnau as transportation director, and Kelliher said a change of leadership for the department would help restore morale in the agency and the Legislature's confidence in it.

But it's not just Democrats who are calling for Molnau's removal from the department.

"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."

The impasse over the bridge's repair is a far cry from the message elected officials delivered in the days after the 458-foot span crumbled into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people

Pawlenty and legislators immediately 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. Twice during his tenure he has vetoed bills to raise the gas tax.

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 email.

Democrats objected to the income tax cut because it would mean cuts in general funds for things like education and other vital services, Kelliher said.

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.

By the time lawmakers convened for the Sept. 12 special session, the only items left on the agenda were a slate of measures to provide emergency relief for the August floods that hit the Southwestern part of the state.

Now it is uncertain whether Minnesota will be able to rebuild the bridge without delaying other transportation projects.

Congress has authorized $250 million to reimburse the state for construction costs - but only after the state has paid for the work. And the state's costs, including cleaning up debris, have soared past original estimates to $400 million.

After the disagreement with Democrats, Pawlenty asked an obscure eight-member legislative panel, the Transportation Contingent Appropriations Group, to approve extra spending of $195 million until the federal dollars are doled out. Lawmakers approved only $60 million, saying that the group can only authorize spending federal money after it has been paid to the state. The federal government has already sent Minnesota $55 million in emergency funds

And that means the whole debate will be replayed in the 2008 legislative session along with likely questions about the future of transportation secretary Molnau, who was appointed to manage the transportation agency as a sort of "two-for-one" deal after Pawlenty was elected in 2002.

In an Oct. 11 television interview, Molnau said her appointment gives her direct access to the governor and shows that transportation is a priority for the governor. On top of that, her department has completed more projects in the past four years than in the previous 12, she said.

But she acknowledged that her political position also makes her a "lightening 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.

Andersen, the bridge inspector, 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 take up the slack, he said.

The week before the bridge collapse, he said, the agency announced that it was considering cutting 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.