Controversy at MNDOT, DFL leaders call on Molnau to resign

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Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, told the Star Tribune Tuesday that he is set to call hearings into the situation at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We’ll get to the bottom of this if we have haul them in under threat of subpoena. I want to find out how bad the problem is at MnDOT,” he said.

And today, Murphy along with several other DFL legislators called for the removal of MNDOT commissioner Carol Molnau. If she does not step down, the Senate would seek to remove her when the 2008 session convenes. “We have the votes to reject her confirmation,” Murphy said at a news conference today.

How bad is the problem at MNDOT?

MNDOT has come under scrutiny for the bidding process to select the builders to replace the 35W bridge. Two of the companies who bid on the project have filed complaints. According to the Star Tribune, lawyers for the bidders “accused the Minnesota Department of Transportation of having a predetermined preference for a concrete bridge, of falsely interpreting state law to keep details of the bids concealed and of loosening the deadline for bridge completion in a way that harms taxpayers.” The bidders also say that “using public relations as one of the factors in choosing a team is not authorized by state statutes” and that “MnDOT’s bid-protest procedure is illegal because it tries to exempt the agency from judicial review.”

MNDOT alerted local officials this weekend that they may have to delay transportation projects because of the 35W rebuild since the federal appropriations bill that contains rebuild funding faces a likely veto from Bush. Molnau said in a letter last week that “deferral of other planned projects or drastic reductions in MnDOT’s other core functions, such as project delivery and maintenance” were possible without the federal funds.

MNDOT will have to ask the legislature for authority to spend the federal money before it is appropriated. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, told Gov. Pawlenty that he is asking them to take a huge risk in spending money that might not show up. “I think there’s huge doubt the federal money will come,” Murphy told the Star Tribune. “You’ve got a president who’s rattling his saber, saying he may veto the transportation bill. We don’t know when that money will get here.”

These problems leave many wondering why MNDOT waited until after the Sept. 11 special legislative session to announce the request for authority to spend money that isn’t there yet.

The announcement of possible delays in construction projects have raised some concerns over projects in need of urgent repair. The Wakota bridge over the Mississippi River between South St. Paul and Newport is one project that has already suffered delays and appears on a list of 200 projects MNDOT is considering delaying. Washington County authorities are concerned that the Hastings bridge on Hwy. 61 may not get the immediate attention it needs. “There’s a large hole that goes all the way through the bridge,” county commissioner Myra Peterson said at a recent meeting.

One has to wonder how MNDOT employees will get to work on many projects. The building that houses MNDOT is falling down. Nick Coleman, columnist for the Star Tribune says, “The terms “catastrophic” and “life-safety” come from an urgent $13.7 million repair request prepared by the Department of Administration, which is responding to threats from building inspectors to close the transportation building if measures aren’t taken to prevent workers and visitors from being injured by falling pieces of the building’s exterior.” The legislature passed a bonding bill that contained money to fix the building but Gov. Pawlenty vetoed it.