Legislators Go Their Own Way on Roads

Earmark has been a dirty word since Congress banned the practice following the fury over Alaska’s $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere.” But now earmarks–the directing of public funds to specific works projects–may be making a comeback. Not in DC, at least not yet, but among Minnesota lawmakers who told the Pioneer Press that MnDOT can’t be trusted to be in charge of all road construction projects.download

As Minnesota leaders debate how much new money to put toward the state’s roads, they’re also fighting about a related issue: who should choose which roads get attention?

Ordinarily, the Legislature appropriates money for roads and bridges, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation decides how to spend the money. But bills in the Legislature this year take a different path: they order the MnDOT to do specific road projects. It’s a process called “earmarking,” and it could spark a showdown over road funding between the Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Behind the feud are bad feelings from some lawmakers about how MnDOT has chosen projects recently — as well as normal tensions between the legislative and executive branches and between Democrats and Republicans.

Gridlock on Twin Cities freeways continues to worsen with interstates congested during rush hour last year a whopping 23.4 percent of the time. State projections call for it to get even worse. But rather than add more highway lanes, MnDOT has emphasized alternative modes of transportation like light rail and transit under Gov. Dayton, while maintaining roads already built.

Legislators also complain about MnDOT ignoring vital highway projects outside the metro area.

A list prepared by MnDOT identified a $1 million earmark in the House transportation budget and several earmarks worth more than $100 million in the Senate’s transportation budget. The two budgets are in the process of being combined into a single measure.

State Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said MnDOT has been neglecting vital work such as safety upgrades to U.S. 12 in the western metro, which has had a series of safety issues in recent years.

“We in the Legislature have heard more and more from our constituents asking why MnDOT doesn’t get the job done in our particular area of the state,” said Newman, the chair of the Senate’s transportation committee.

Other infrastructure projects regularly receive funding through earmarks. But MnDOT insists highways should be off limits. Otherwise, roads might get built too soon!

MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said the department’s selection process is the best way to select road projects and that the Legislature causes problems when it starts picking.

One problem he cited: road projects take lots of time and coordination to plan, and an earmark can mean a project gets funded years before it’s ready. He said many transportation projects lawmakers earmarked weren’t ready to go, while other shovel-ready projects were ignored.

It’s almost enough to persuade a skeptic to give earmarks another chance.