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Federal money boosts state road programs

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announces on Wednesday that his administration will spend $180 million in federal stimulus money on highway projects outside the Twin Cities. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Federal funds meant to spur the economy will help make this one of Minnesota's busiest road construction years.

Federal economic stimulus money will provide $180 million for 60 state transportation projects outside the Twin Cities, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced Wednesday. By the time all money is received, state officials expect to receive $596 million for state and local highway and transit projects in the coming two years.

But that is just a start. Twin Cities projects have yet to be announced, and this spring the Minnesota Department of Transportation will announce its regular construction program.

State Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said that the state normally spends about $2 billion on road projects in a two-year budget, and the federal stimulus money will increase that.

Local governments usually spend several hundred million dollars themselves, and they also get a part of the federal stimulus package. What local projects get funding still is being decided.

Also, Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said, the state is ready to snap up any federal transportation money not claimed by other states.

One of the main criteria Congress and President Barack Obama placed on the federal money is that it can be spent only on projects nearly ready to begin. The state will approve contracts beginning next month, with construction starting as soon as May.

"We are prepared to deliver," Sorel said.

The projects include a variety of types of work such as an $18 million concrete overlay on U.S. 53 north of Duluth, $66,000 for a traffic signal replacement on state Highway 197 in Bemidji and $225,000 for fixing a U.S. 61 bridge in Red Wing.

One of the more unusual projects is on U.S. 169 near Chisholm, where abandoned mines are causing the road to collapse.

Federal authorities estimate that 5,000 jobs will be created or saved by the money influx to greater Minnesota's projects.

"It is very, very important to distribute thee projects around the state to stimulate job growth," Sorel said.

Legislative transportation leaders were happy with Wednesday's announcement.

"They put a lot of money into transportation," House Transportation Chairman Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said.

He and Murphy praised Sorel for preparing a list of projects that could be started early in the year.

Sorel made sure Minnesota "got the best bang for the buck," Murphy said.

The U.S. House transportation chairman, not always a Pawlenty fan, also was happy.

"I am glad to see Gov. Pawlenty taking decisive action to use the recovery legislation to put people to work," Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, said. "The road and bridge work alone in this legislation could create 17,000 jobs in Minnesota this year; that is why Congress and President Obama passed this important bill."

Minnesota House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, criticized Pawlenty for flying on state money to announce the greater Minnesota projects.

"The governor is flying around Minnesota on state taxpayer dollars bragging about spending federal taxpayer dollars," Sertich said. "This is funding he didn't want. It's ironic coming from a chief executive who vetoed state transportation bills several times."

Pawlenty, however, said rural Minnesotans deserve to hear from him about such major projects.

"I think it is important to travel around the state ..." he said. "There is a world beyond the Capitol."

Republican Pawlenty compared his Wednesday trip to Democratic-organized legislative budget hearings around the state.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.