Busy highway construction season thanks to new investment


Minnesota’s first highway construction season since the enactment of $6.6 billion in new state transportation revenues over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto will bring acceleration of a few much-needed road and bridge projects, a step up in long-neglected maintenance of existing assets and a glimpse of how much more should be done.

The real challenge for the Minnesota Department of Transportation this year and in the future will be to find a prudent balance for its new resources, which by its own measures meet no more than one-third of the need. That means scheduling both high-profile, costly system expansions and cheaper, less visible but vital work to halt the woeful deterioration of existing roadways on Pawlenty’s watch. If it’s done right, it will foster public support for additional investments down the road.

Is MnDOT’s 2008 construction plan up to it? Hard to tell, but here are highlights from this month’s announcement:

* Prompt replacement of St. Cloud’s bent, fracture-critical DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River, which was closed last month over safety concerns. Cost: $35.3 million. Former project timeline: 2015.

* A start of work on the $45 million “Devil’s Triangle” three-way interchange in Brooklyn Park and Osseo, now one of the Twin Cities’ worst stoplight traffic traps. MnDOT had to delay it last year, at first until 2009, to finance the Crosstown Commons project in Minneapolis and Richfield.

* A $16 million resurfacing of 16 westbound miles of Interstate Hwy. 90 between Rochester and Austin, plus replacement of culverts. This also was advanced from the 2009 schedule.

About 20 additional major projects to increase system capacity, 12 new bridges and 14 smaller improvements such as turn lanes, signals and wider freeway ramps are also scheduled this year. The large capacity projects are about doubled from 2007, the others about the same.

MnDOT said 28 more highway and bridge projects valued at $549 million – the stuff of ceremonial ground-breakings and ribbon-cuttings — will be advanced in the next two years, including replacement of the rusting, outdated Hwy. 61 Hastings bridge over the Mississippi.

Meanwhile, the great bulk of the 135 projects valued at $441 million set for this year offer a lot less obvious sizzle in exchange for the inconveniences of Minnesota’s second season (besides winter): road construction.

* About 65 of the projects, up from 52 last year, will put new surfaces on top of old, bumpy roads, a relatively short-term fix before highways are fully reconstructed from the base up. Five reconstructions are scheduled this year, down from 10 in 2007.

* Another 18 projects are described as painting, repairing and sealing cracks; there were 20 last year. About as mundane are six guard rail or median barrier projects and four each involving railroad grade crossings and roadside landscaping.

With so much catching up to do on simple maintenance and with recent cost surges for construction materials like concrete and steel, “it’s going to be hard to make a visible case to the public that things are being done,” said Tim Worke, a longtime MnDOT executive who is now a lobbyist for highway contractors. “I’m not sure the public will recognize the bang for the buck. This bill addressed about a third of the need. We need a consistent, long-term vision for transportation, and anything less stands in the way of our state’s economic prospects.”

At least the new leadership at MnDOT may be beginning to recognize that reality.

“The volume of the work on our roads and bridges is an impressive contribution to the state economy,” said acting Commissioner Bob McFarlin, who replaced Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau in the job last month after the state Senate refused to confirm Molnau’s appointment. “It underscores our determination to deliver results for Minnesota taxpayers.”

We hope that determination translates into effective advocacy for the additional investments to deliver the needed mobility results still going begging – and not the obstructionism we’ve seen from the Pawlenty-Molnau team.