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No Money, No Leadership: Another MnDOT Cash Flow Crisis

October 02, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
$393 million: That's the new price tag for replacing the fallen Interstate 35W bridge offered to skeptical legislators Monday by an increasingly beleaguered Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The current projected cost for a new 10-lane, transit-ready bridge and related expenses such as stepped-up inspections of similar spans across the state is $143 million more than the $250 million the federal government has promised - and $393 million more than has actually been received from Washington.

Actual cash transfers to Minnesota are tied up in political disputes between Congress and President Bush and bureaucratic haggling over documentation for reimbursement between state and federal officials. 

Meanwhile, the state has already spent tens of millions of dollars on rescue and recovery operations after the old bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River Aug. 1, killing 13; cleanup of the site and efforts to speed traffic on 35W detours. Most of that money has come from a fast-depleting state trunk highway fund balance, which officials now warn could slip into the red as early as next month.

They also have said that unless the Legislature appropriates the full $250 million in hoped-for federal funds soon that other highway projects around the state will have to be delayed.

For four hours Monday, legislators closely questioned Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau and other MnDOT officials over these concerns. Molnau, who is also the state's elected lieutenant governor, is already under fire following the bridge collapse. Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, who has demanded her ouster, addressed her several times as the "acting commissioner." The state Senate has the power to remove Molnau from her commissioner's job once it begins its 2008 regular session. That won't happen until Feb. 12, but newspapers around the state have already joined the call for her head.

MnDOT under Molnau is an agency "that clearly is headed the wrong way," the Bemidji Pioneer editorialized Sunday. She "should step down now, allowing the governor to tap a professional engineer who will take the politics out of what should be a nonpartisan public works agency."

The Austin Herald said a part-time commissioner such as Molnau can't effectively run her 4,500-employee department and its $2 billion annual budget, especially if she has "political goals to accomplish for her running mate [Gov. Tim Pawlenty] and the Republican Party."

Added the Grand Forks Herald: "Under her leadership, the agency has become demoralized. She hasn't been an effective advocate for transportation issues in Minnesota. She allowed key positions to remain unfilled. She hasn't argued for road repairs. Instead, she's accepted budgets that were inadequate, without objection."

"The reason: Her loyalty has been to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his no-new-taxes agenda rather than to the adequacy of the state's transportation infrastructure ... She ought to make way for someone genuinely committed to improving the state's transportation infrastructure."

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