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Bad Bridges, Bad Votes

August 30, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
 
State Sen. Dick Day and Rep. Randy Demmer are rivals for the Republican nomination for southeastern Minnesota's seat in the U.S. House next year. They're also fighting it out for a less desirable distinction: the state legislator with the most unsafe trunk highway bridges in his district and the sternest opposition to funding that could fix them.

Day's constituents around Owatonna have to put up with five highway bridges rated structurally deficient and eight more listed as functionally obsolete. Demmer's House district around Hayfield and Rochester has three structurally deficient bridges.

Both voted no on bipartisan transportation funding bills in 2005 and 2007, and their opposition helped sustain Gov. Tim Pawlenty's vetoes of the measures after they passed the Legislature. For good measure, Demmer voted against a state bonding bill this year - also vetoed by Pawlenty - that would have appropriated $30 million for deficient local bridges.

Demmer and Day were the among the standouts in a new analysis of public bridge data by legislative districts and their elected officials' votes, released Wednesday by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

But Demmer and Day aren't the only legislators whose votes have ignored the bad bridges in their bailiwicks. Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton has four of them in his area in the state's southwest corner but still voted against new road and bridge revenue in 2005 and 2007. Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who recently left the Legislature for a commissioner's job in the Pawlenty administration, voted no despite the presence of five structurally deficient spans and two more that are functionally obsolete in his district around Kenyon.

To be sure, all these votes occurred before the Interstate 35W Bridge fell into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, killing 13. Some of the revenue nay-sayers, including Pawlenty, may be retooling their positions in the wake of that horror.

But others are sticking to their guns. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, whose district around Marshall has two structurally deficient bridges, has publicly opposed Pawlenty's call for a special session of the Legislature to consider once more new funding for roads and bridges.

At least Seifert is consistent, if not particularly responsive to his constituents. As with every other legislator mentioned in this article, Seifert's district voted in favor last November of a state constitutional amendment to dedicate all motor vehicle sales taxes to roads, bridges and transit. The amendment even got more votes than Seifert himself.

"The politicians are slowly getting the message," said Jim Erkel of the Center for Environmental Advocacy, who described the group's analysis as a tool hold officials accountable. "It's time for all the legislators to get on board with investing in Minnesota's economy by raising the money to spend on roads, bridges and transit."

On the Web: The Center for Environmental Advocacy's analysis, including maps showing locations of all deficient highway bridges in Minnesota, is at www.mncenter.org



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