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Road Fund Standoff Stokes Worry In Minnesota

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The current congressional standoff over highway construction dollars is causing some discomfort among the people charged with keeping Minnesota’s roads and bridges in proper shape.

Without a deal soon between Congress and President Barack Obama, the federal Highway Trust Fund could run dry. That could create problems for states like Minnesota that depend heavily on federal money for expensive road projects.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle has assembled a list of worst-case scenarios should the fund become insolvent next year. One option, according to a report published Wednesday, is focusing solely on maintenance and putting new construction on hold.

In Minnesota, there are 300 and 400 highway projects a year. Of this season’s $3.1 billion in road work, about 30 percent of the tab is picked up by the federal government.

But next year’s slate is unknown. Take Martin Road, a six-mile stretch north of Duluth that has weathered some rough winters recently and needs to be repaved at a cost of $3.2 million. Normally, the federal government would pick up $2.5 million of that tab and the rest would fall to locals, but this is the type of project that could be put on ice.

The cash reserves in the federal fund are set to be depleted by Aug. 29, while Congress is in recess. The search for a fix — probably temporary — is on.

The Republican-led U.S. House was eyeing surpluses in other transportation-related accounts, such as the Leaking Underground Storage Tank fund, according to a report. It is stocked with proceeds from a tiny tax on motor fuel and is supposed to be used in cleaning up leaking gas station tanks.

The federal highway fund, whose main source of money is the federal gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon — that has remained unchanged and not indexed to inflation for the past 21 years. The U.S. House passed an $11 billion bill to patch that fund, also tapping into fees on travelers and change pension rules in order to come up with 10 months’ worth of money.

Not surprisingly, there’s a partisan divide among Minnesota’s congressional delegation about what to do.

Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan said he’s prepared “to consider a gas tax or a sales tax on petroleum or additional general revenue funds. We simply have to fund our transportation and infrastructure.” Democratic Rep. Tim Walz also says he’s keeping those options open.

Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen said his party won’t back an increase in the federal gas tax to fund transportation spending long-term and that lawmakers should look at other ideas.

“I think that people know that we have to be creative when it comes to highways and bridge,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “Democrats and Republicans have been willing to talk about other ways to do things and that’s what we have to do in a longer-term plan.”

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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