ST. PAUL -- Arguing that better roads are needed now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has a new plan to borrow a half billion dollars and take a half-billion more in an advance from the federal government to pay for a five-year road building spurt.
Pawlenty didn't hold out his plan as the final solution to the state's congestion problems on Friday, and Democrats promptly agreed that it isn't.
But Pawlenty and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also heads the state transportation department, said it will speed a handful of "mega projects" that would otherwise have to wait nearly a decade. And, he said, it will do so without raising gasoline taxes.
He said if the economy improves, there may be ways to fund still more road and bridge construction.
"We need these projects," said Pawlenty, though he said no list of specific projects has been made. "We're 10 to 15 years behind in our transportation infrastructure in many respects."
Pawlenty would have the state pay for the half-billion dollars it borrows for 20 years. The $42 million yearly cost of the bonds would come by laying off some employees in a department reorganization, by closing some rest areas, by painting highway stripes less often and by plowing some rural roads less speedily after snowstorms.
The other half-billion in his plan essentially would mean taking more quickly money that the federal government would give the state eventually anyway.
Pawlenty said it is cost effective to take the money now, because the cost of buying land for road rights of way is going up rapidly.
Democrats offered tepid encouragement to Pawlenty.
Crookston Rep. Bernie Lieder, the top Democrat on a House transportation committee, said the money wouldn't make a large difference to most travelers.
"What we have here is basically maintenance and preservation funding," he said. "The new money that would come in would basically take care of inflation."
The state currently spends about $500 million per year on road and bridge construction. Pawlenty's plan would add an additional $160 million in 2004 and, in the single largest insertion of cash, $300 million in 2005.
The new funding would end in 2008.
Pawlenty said it would not be enough money to fulfill one of the transportation goals he talked about in his campaign, to expand Interstates 694 and 494 so they have three lanes in each direction completely around the Twin Cities.
Sen. Dean Johnson, the Willmar chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, described himself as "skeptically optimistic" toward the plan. He said he's glad Pawlenty will focus on both Twin Cities freeways and primary roads connecting the rest of the state's cities.
But Johnson is critical of some of the cuts the transportation department is planning to make to come up with the money to pay the bonds.
"It makes little sense to me to have fewer people keeping our roads safe while at the same time building more roads," he said.
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