Which road projects should get stimulus funds?

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A proposal by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Metropolitan Council (Met Council) to use most of the Metro District’s transportation stimulus money on expanding Highway 610 and the interchange of 169 and 494 has drawn criticism. Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) and the 1,000 Friends of Minnesota, both non-profit organizations, say the stimulus package should be used for repairs on existing roads rather than expanding.

TLC and the 1,000 Friends of Minnesota are working together with advocates of bicycling, walking and public transportation to influence how the stimulus money is spent.

“Our interest in the stimulus is to see that this money gets used for two purposes,” Barb Thoman, program consultant at TLC, said. “One, to repair the roads, the bridges, the trails and sidewalks that we already have, and then to continue to build out new options for people for getting around. So begin to build out our public transit system and our networks of walking and biking.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 will give MN transportation approximately $600 million. About $502.3 million will be used for highway funding and $94.1 million in transit formula funding, which includes mass transit. Half of the highway funding will be used for the metro area.

The Transportation Advisory Board of the Met Council and MnDOT met March 18 and discussed using the stimulus package to fund two major highway expansion projects: >Highway 610 in Maple Grove and the interchange of 169 and 494 in Bloomington.

Remaining meetings held by the Met Council for the public:

Wednesday, Apr. 8, Metropolitan Council at 4 p.m.
Metropolitan Council office, Chambers
390 Robert Street N., St. Paul, MN

Wednesday, Apr. 15, TAB Programming Committee at Noon
Metropolitan Council offices, Chambers
390 Robert Street N., St. Paul, MN

Wednesday, Apr. 15, Transportation Advisory Board at 1:30 p.m.
Metropolitan Council offices, Chambers
390 Robert Street N., St. Paul, MN

Thursday, Apr. 16, Funding & Programming Committee of the Technical Advisory Committee at 1:30 p.m.
Metropolitan Council offices, Lower Level A
390 Robert Street N., St. Paul, MN

TLC and the 1,000 Friends of Minnesota want the stimulus money to be used to improve existing roads, trails and sidewalks; Thoman thinks improvement in pavement conditions are a high priority. “If you drive on 94, between Minneapolis and St. Paul, you’ll understand what pavement repair means because that highway is full of cracks, it’s got big potholes, the pavement in such condition on some of these highways that you can’t fix potholes anymore,” Thoman said.

In order for a project to be eligible, it has to meet the requirements of the Federal-aid Highway Program’s Surface Transportation Program which, according to Thoman, means a highway needs to get a certain amount of traffic or a certain kind of traffic to qualify.

“I think in [the metro], too often the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Thoman said. “I’m not sure [Met Council and MnDOT] have a real rational process for figuring out which of these expansion projects or repair projects get done, or what the priority is for these expansion and repair projects.”

MnDOT, however, is considered by TLC and the 1,000 Friends of Minnesota to have done a good job with how they plan to spend the stimulus on transportation in Greater Minnesota. “They spend more of their money on repair maintenance than they do on expansion,” John Bailey, policy director of the 1,000 Friend of Minnesota, said. “They’re really committed to safety maintenance over building more bridges, more highways and instead making the existing highways and existing bridges safer.”

Bailey said there is very little opportunity for public discussion on the decisions being made with the stimulus package. There are four public meetings that will be held by the Met Council which invites the public to attend (see sidebar).

Casey Merkwan is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.

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