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Road engineers told to trim projects

ST. PAUL - Transportation engineers around the state are narrowing their list of road projects to prepare for potentially fewer funds.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials said Thursday that after the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse, they directed district transportation engineers to identify road construction projects they would delay in 2008 if the state agency does not receive additional spending authority. Until recently, transportation officials said they did not expect bridge reconstruction expenses to affect other projects.

At a legislative hearing Thursday, MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau said the eight transportation districts have been told to prepare for the possibility of less state money. Some already have responded with proposals.

The Democrat-controlled Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group, considering whether to approve MnDOT's request for $195 million in additional spending because of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, wanted details of those proposed project delays, but was told the data was not available.

Molnau, a Republican and the elected lieutenant governor, and others said top MnDOT officials did not have a prepared list of projects that could be delayed if the department lacks adequate funding for its planned construction program and 35W bridge costs.

Molnau said the agency has believed since the Minneapolis bridge collapse that funding for local projects could be in jeopardy if the department did not have enough funds for the bridge cleanup and reconstruction. But transportation officials told reporters for weeks that they did not expect that to happen.

State officials say they have been promised $250 million in federal aid, but most of it has yet to come to Minnesota.

"We knew it would have an impact if we did nothing else," Molnau said.

Within a week after the Legislature's special session last month - which did not produce a major transportation funding package - MnDOT staffers issued "target" funding levels that may need to be cut from each district, Deputy Commissioner Lisa Freese told the eight-member legislative panel. That was when the agency better understood the estimated cost of the Minneapolis bridge cleanup and reconstruction and realized the Legislature was not going to approve a long-term transportation funding increase.

Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, and others on the panel pressed MnDOT officials for details, but were told top-ranking staff had not seen the information.

Lawmakers wanted to know what districts already have proposed plans to delay projects and what work could be deferred, and the timeline district engineers were given to complete MnDOT's request. That data is expected to be presented when the legislative panel meets for a third time next week.

Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton is one of two Republicans on the legislative panel and wants to approve MnDOT's $195 million request. Magnus said he is worried road projects in southwestern Minnesota could be delayed without that additional spending authority and the promised federal aid.

"That would put us in severe problems," Magnus said after the hearing.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Minneapolis DFLer and panel co-chairwoman, sought a guarantee from the transportation department that no local projects would be delayed if the agency gets its $195 million request.

No guarantee was offered, but typically 85 percent to 90 percent of planned projects move forward, said MnDOT official Tim Henkel.

The state agency suggested fewer projects could be advanced without the panel's approval of the funding it seeks.

"If we don't get the $195 million worth of budget authority, that means that we quickly have to start looking at some of those deferrals," Henkel said.