Two area legislators think the upcoming state transportation bill, expected in April, may provide an answer to the Highway 371 overpass question.
"There is no question in my mind the bottom line is there must be an overpass in that section of the highway," said Rep. Steve Wenzel, DFL-Little Falls.
Wenzel said he visited with Don Rissen, Minnesota Department of Transportation, last week and was briefed on transportation needs in the district, including the financial shortfall of the overpass project on the southern edge of the Brainerd bypass.
Sen. Don Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd, said he has also been hearing about the overpass issue. Samuelson noted there may be an impression MnDOT was dragging its feet since the department was not originally in favor of the overpass. But Samuelson said he does not believe that is the case.
And with funding from the Legislature and federal sources, Samuelson said he hopes the project can go ahead roughly on schedule.
"We can certainly keep pushing them to make sure this is a priority," Samuelson said. "They (MnDOT) are in high hopes they can get at it in two years."
Wenzel, who has long been a proponent of a four-lane highway between Little Falls and Brainerd, said he will work to see funds are allocated for the overpass project. Some $400 million to $600 million may be in the transportation bill from the $1.8 billion state surplus.
In addition, Wenzel said he planned to talk to Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar. It was Oberstar who was able to assist the overpass project with $750,000 for that feature. A week ago, MnDOT representatives said the project had grown from a two-lane project with an estimated $3.25 million project to $6.1 million for four lanes, plus right-of-way costs.
Wenzel said the transportation bill is likely to be the biggest package since 1988. In the past, Wenzel noted the Legislature and governors were unable to come to an agreement in transportation spending.
Last week, MnDOT officials said a one-time funding increase from the surplus would help transportation needs, but long-term funding solutions are needed. Wenzel said a gas tax provides a solid base, but that discussion has not been on the table. And with the rising gas prices, Wenzel said it would not be appropriate to raise the gas tax.
"Making use of the surplus is, in my opinion, the best policy for the state at this time," he said.
Now District 3 transportation needs will compete with the rest of the state's needs for road improvements. But Wenzel said he did not believe the Highway 371 bypass and overpass, with its accident history, would not be a priority.
"That is what I am going to seek in the days and weeks ahead," he said.
In addition, Wenzel said the 2006 target completion for the four lanes between Little Falls and Brainerd could move up a year or perhaps two.
On Friday, the House highway bill on the way to the floor provided for $425 million. That figure blends $350 million from the general surplus and $75 million from the surplus in the trunk highway fund.
In the Senate, the bill moving from committee to the floor is for $389 million -- with $275 million from the general surplus, $3.2 million from the trunk highway surplus and $101 million in trunk highway bonds.
The funds are for fiscal year 2000, which begins in July. With no additional funding, MnDOT expected to spend $520 million between July 1, 2000, and June 30, 2001. Wenzel said the proposed increases, which may vary by the time a bill is signed into law, should constitute an almost a 100 percent increase.
The governor recommended zero new dollars for road construction this next year but $30 million in general obligation bonds. One thought is to wait to spend the money until the next biennium. Wenzel said with rising construction costs waiting two years is ridiculous.
"I think people want road projects completed," he said.
The issue then becomes how MnDOT will divide funds into districts.
"We have to make our case early, hard and often," Wenzel said, noting his only disagreement with MnDOT is that officials should have cried foul louder relative to the money shortage for the overpass. That may have created an opportunity for more funds from federal coffers, Wenzel said.
"I have to believe there was a gap in communications here otherwise it would have been done, but we can still do it."
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