August 6, 2007

What Constituted A High Priority For Transportation Funding?

Accusations have flown over funding priorities almost from the moment of the St. Anthony Bridge collapse last Wednesday. Despite the fact that federal transportation funding increased in 2005 by 46% to Minnesota, some still insist that the bridge collapsed because of a lack of funds for proper maintenance.

Perhaps this roster of earmarks for Minnesota projects in that 2005 transportation bill will show what our Congressional delegation considered priorities. In this list, I-35W only gets mentioned twice in 147 separate line items, neither of which had anything to do with the bridge that collapsed. None of them mention the Lafayette Bridge either, which MnDOT considered more problematic than the St. Anthony Bridge before its collapse.

So what did get prioritized?

  • Lyndale Avenue Bridge, Richfield ($13 million)
  • TH 169 between Virginia and Winton ($20 million)
  • Design and construction for new Stillwater crossing over the St. Croix ($9 million)
  • Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program in Minneapolis-St. Paul ($25 million)
  • Falls-to-Falls Corridor ($50 million)
  • Union Depot Multimodal Transit Facility ($50 million)
  • Those are just the earmarks that went to actual transportation projects. We also had the following funded as high priorities in the monies provided by the federal highway bill:

  • University of Minnesota ($16 million)
  • Recreational visitor center in Virginia, MN ($1.3 million)
  • Bike trail construction along TH 11 ($540,000)
  • Construct bicycle and pedestrian trails in Cuyuna Recreation Area ($700,000)
  • Heritage Center at the Grand Portage National Monument ($1.4 million)
  • Program for Replacement and upgrade of deficient township signs, statewide ($3 million)
  • All of these monies fell outside the control of MnDOT prioritization, thanks to the earmarks made by our Congressional delegation. In total, this amounted to $478 million, roughly one-seventh of the state's federal highway funds for the five-year spending plan. Most of the earmarks have nothing to do with federal interstates but with rural roads maintained by the state and local governments.

    Clearly, Minnesota did not lack for funds to repair or replace the bridge. However, it appears that the priorities set by our representatives managed to hamstring state priorities for those funds to some extent. Before we start raising taxes that will undoubtedly create more opportunities for earmarking and meddlesome politicking, let's (a) find out why the bridge collapsed, and (b) start demanding better control and prioritization of the funds we already get.


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    Comments (17)

    Posted by starfleet_dude | August 6, 2007 1:03 PM

    Ed, cherry picking a few federal earmarks and then dismissing the need for additional state transporation funding is just a dodge on your part. The fact is that Pawlenty has been bonding the state up the wazoo for years now to pay for transporation projects. That's what the start of the Crosstown reconstruction was delayed, because the money wasn't there and the contractors involved for some strange reason wouldn't take an IOU from the state, preferring cash money instead.

    Posted by Quenton | August 6, 2007 1:14 PM

    How about a real option? One like... get the federal government out local infrastructure management all together. It never ceases to amaze me that any time the Feds screw up the immediate knee-jerk reaction is to "fix" whatever shady, self-serving, agency bungled things. There is no "fix". The Feds are too far away and too corrupt to understand local issues and deal with them in any helpful way.

    One of the many reasons the USSR was a complete and total failure was because any and all decisions had to pass through Moscow. If a street-sweeper in Vladivostok needed a new broom he had to have Moscow's approval. There are plenty of people that seem to want to replicate this sad state of affairs here.

    Let Minnesota handle Minnesota's affairs. Don't pre-empt their decision making power and give it to some un-elected bureaucrat in Washington who will pilfer every cent he can out of the pot and then hand the rest off to some road construction firm that just happens to be run by one of his poker buddies.

    Posted by MarkW | August 6, 2007 1:56 PM


    The point is that the money would have been there had the various govts not been wasting so much of it.

    Posted by garrett | August 6, 2007 2:20 PM

    Well, Louisiana handled New Orleans affairs quite well, with regard to using Fedral funds for infrastructure, wouldn't you say?

    The solution to corruption and unproductive meddling is not to give control of Federal funds to state level politicians.

    Posted by Karl Egenberger | August 6, 2007 2:41 PM

    Fed guidelines and mandates with State control and direction of funds.

    MN is not New Orleans...I hope. New Orleans is an aberration in almost all ways. Some good.

    Capt is on the mark on earmarks. Tally up the above, and you'll see MN was not lacking funds.... lacking in judgement of priorities on a state level, however.

    Posted by LarryD | August 6, 2007 2:43 PM

    You realize, garrett, that you are arguing against any Federal funding of anything not Federally controlled?

    Posted by Pho | August 6, 2007 2:57 PM

    "The fact is that Pawlenty has been bonding the state up the wazoo for years now to pay for transporation projects. "

    So a state going after projects that it wasn't paying for up front... means... what? That just because a state identifies a project that it obligates the federal government to pay for it?

    I guess I'm missing what you're trying to say.

    Have we actually identified a cause of the collapse at all? Or are we still assuming it was some kind of preventable issue that doubling the "infrastructure" money for the state would've fixed by magic?

    Is there still an off chance that it just suffered a catastrophic collapse that maybe wasn't reasonably preventable or a result of any maintence issues ... that might have been addressed by throwing money at it?

    We don't know. Anyone who says they know, is a fool or a liar... or both.

    I'm still of the opinion we need to find out what happend, before coming up with oodles of cash to put in the hands of media crazed politicians who feel like they need to be on camera with checkbooks before they know what the actual problem was.

    That and after the events of New Orleans some time back... I'm double leary of anyone who's pointing at the federal government for not throwing money down ratholes fast enough to keep people from falling in them. All to often you find out there are guys with shovels at the bottom of those holes making them deeper faster than you can fill them up with dollar bills.

    Ya gotta identify the cause of something before you can address it. The whole media has erupted in this huge fiasco that because one bridge collapsed for unknown reasons... that they're ALL going to be collapsing if we don't get a bunch of emergency funding approved.

    It's beyond silly, and bordering on the psychotic.

    Don't get me wrong... it's tragic the way those people died and were hurt. But that in no way means there is a "national cirsis" going on.

    Posted by starfleet_dude | August 6, 2007 3:27 PM

    So a state going after projects that it wasn't paying for up front... means... what? That just because a state identifies a project that it obligates the federal government to pay for it?

    I guess I'm missing what you're trying to say.

    Pho, what I'm trying to say is that Minnesota hasn't increased fuel taxes since 1988, but the need for additional funds to better maintain an aging transportation infrastructure has only grown in the past 20 years. Projects have been put off due to a lack of funds, which has only in part been made up by Pawlenty's increasing reliance on bonds to pay for improvements. The problem with this approach is that those bonds will have to be paid off in the long run, which will lower the amount of money available in the future to pay for transportation in the state. Projects such as the reconstruction of the Crosstown commons were delayed because funds were simply not available to pay the contractors to do the work, and other jobs like the replacement of the aging Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul have also been put off due to a lack of funds. The cost of bike paths isn't the problem and never has been.

    Posted by viking01 | August 6, 2007 3:53 PM

    By long honored tradition the allocation of transportation funding just as with education funding is to skim as much as possible before any gets to the actual structures or schools.

    What it "costs" to put a kid through an abysmal Washington, DC NEA- run public school would go a long way toward the purchase of a top quality private education nearly anywhere else in the country.

    Case in point: If you are a millionaire crack dealer pardoned by Clinton and you still choose to buy crack cocaine instead of groceries the mechanism of your starvation isn't a lack of funding but the manner of expenditure.

    Posted by docjim505 | August 6, 2007 3:56 PM

    starfleet_dude wrote (August 6, 2007 3:27 PM):

    ... Minnesota hasn't increased fuel taxes since 1988...

    DAMN those politicians for not raising taxes! Because, as we all know, the key to avoiding ANY problems EVER is more taxes. It's simple logic: raise taxes enough and nobody will be able to afford to own a car, much less drive. Then the bridge won't be subjected to the stress of traffic and it'll last much longer.

    (rolls eyes)

    ... jobs like the replacement of the aging Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul have also been put off due to a lack of funds.

    But the state had money to pay for bike trails. I wonder if the governor or anybody in the state legislature ever stopped and thought, "Hey! The Lafayette Bridge is old and really should be replaced. But we don't have enough money. What to do, what to do... I know! Maybe we could cut out something else from the budget and pay for the bridge that way."


    The cost of bike paths isn't the problem and never has been.

    You know the old saying: a billion here, a billion there. Sooner or later, it adds up to REAL money...

    starfleet_dude's post perfectly demonstrates conventional liberal wisdom: More taxes. More taxes. More taxes. Don't expect the government to spend money wisely. Just keep taxing people. That's the ticket. There's unlimited tax revenue out there to fund every piece of pork, every pie-in-the-sky social program, AND pay for "infrastructure". Tax, tax, tax. Why expect anything like fiscal responsibility and good stewardship from elected officials? Tax, tax, tax. And if some pesky naysayer complains about how the money's being spent, accuse him of "cherrypicking" the data and tax, tax, tax. Tax, tax, tax. Setting priorities? Fuggedaboudit! Tax, tax, tax. Only a 46% increase in funding??? That's not enough! Tax, tax, tax.

    The only explanation I can find for this "logic" is that starfleet_dude is filthy rich and has never had to make a personal budget, decide on spending priorities, or put off paying for one thing (a vacation, for example) to pay for something a teensy bit more important (like a house payment... new brakes on his car... food...).

    Either that, or he has the IQ of a rutabaga.

    Posted by Rich Horton | August 6, 2007 4:07 PM

    "Design and construction for new Stillwater crossing over the St. Croix ($9 million)"

    According to the Pioneer Press the old Stillwater Lift Bridge scored a 2 (yes a 2) on the scale that the 35W scored a 50. The sooner they get a new bridge there the better. (Which of course would be helped if the Sierra Club would stop trying to kill the project.)

    Posted by starfleet_dude | August 6, 2007 4:18 PM

    viking01, transportation projects are put out to bid to private contractors and their work is checked to make sure it's going to hold up. That's why when the concrete beams in the Wakota Bridge on I-494 were found to have cracked due to the bridge architect specifying inadequate steel cables, they went back in and replaced them. Thankfully most bridges do get built on time and on budget, like the Wabasha bridge in St. Paul that Lunda (out of Black River Falls, WI) put up. The problem isn't that funds are mis-spent, it's that a backlog of deferred maintenance has been building up for decades in Minnesota.

    docjim505, highway expenditures account for over 93% of MNDoT's budget, with the rest going for mass transit, airports and other modes of transportation like rail and pipelines. There are no billion dollar bike paths out there and never have been. Wisconsin's fuel taxes were wisely indexed to inflation years ago, and as a result while gas costs 20 cents more a gallon there, they have more funds to deal with their transportation needs. Minnesotans who drive to Chicago via I-94 can be thankful they have done so. It's time to Pawlenty to have a change of heart regarding his no-tax pledge, and since even Carol Molnau's now willing to back whatever bill comes out of the legislature's upcoming special session it's safe to say a fuel tax increase is a done deal.

    Posted by Mike M. | August 6, 2007 4:53 PM

    The Captain is right on the money. State and local jurisdictions are often willing to fork over incredible amounts of money for dubious "public works" projects such as new sports stadiums and arenas for billionaire team owners, but bridges and roads get put off for another day.

    It's not that taxes and spending aren't high enough, it's that at some point along the way, our priorities got totally thrown out of whack. Fixing the bridges is the legitimate role of government; let the billionaire team owner build his own damn new stadium if he really needs one.

    Posted by docjim505 | August 6, 2007 5:07 PM


    $0.20 per gallon MORE??? And you think that's a GOOD thing????

    And liberals complain that the oil companies are gouging consumers...

    Posted by Anonymous Coward | August 6, 2007 5:20 PM

    You realize, garrett, that you are arguing against any Federal funding of anything not Federally controlled?
    Posted by: LarryD at August 6, 2007 2:43 PM

    You say that like it's a bad thing...

    Posted by starfleet_dude | August 6, 2007 5:34 PM

    docjim505, to hear Carol Molnau tell it, it would take a 30 cent per gallon tax increase to really fully fund current transportation needs. She thinks that would cripple the state's economy, but strangely enough Wisconsin's economy seems to be doing just fine despite having a higher gas tax. Funny thing though - I haven't heard a peep from Molnau about how a rise of over a $1.00 a gallon in gas prices since last January has crippled the state's economy beyond repair. Evidently many of the state's leading Republicans are less worried about how higher gas prices really affect the state's economy than they are with burnishing their no-tax cred with those who want to "drown government in a bathtub".

    Posted by quickjustice | August 6, 2007 7:09 PM

    The real long-term conflict here is between infrastructure and entitlements:

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