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Record Editorial: Pawlenty to blame for Minnesota's lack of funds for transportation

Minnesota has a serious transportation funding shortage and the blame must be laid squarely at the feet of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Republicans legislators who stand as a block behind him.

We have always kind of admired the governor because in many ways he is a free-thinking conservative, not an ideologue.

But Minnesota hasn't had a major infusion of cash for its highways in more than 20 years. Roads are beginning to fall into disrepair.

The state needs to swallow hard and raise the gas tax -- and that's the problem. Pawlenty stubbornly refuses to allow the Legislature to do that. The end result is that he is pig-headedly refusing to take care of a vital piece of the state's business -- transportation.

Don't take our word for it. A report just released by the independent legislative auditor's office says essentially the same thing: in a trend that started in 2003, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is being starved of the money it needs to maintain the state's roadways and also build new highways and bridges.

MnDOT has been forced to borrow funds to pay for highway expansion projects, while needed repairs on existing roadways have gone begging.

The governor's strategy has long been to borrow money for road projects rather than raise taxes to pay for them. Now that "borrow-and-spend" strategy is coming back to haunt the state.

The audit also concluded MnDOT's project spending shifted beginning in 2003 and is not in line with its stated priorities, according to a story by Scott Wente of our St. Paul Bureau.

"There are a few bright spots, but the overall picture is not good, and parts are downright grim," Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles told lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing.

Auditors said MnDOT's priority is to preserve existing roadways -- it's much cheaper to maintain than to rebuild a highway -- but to properly maintain the state's roadways in coming years it would have to use nearly all of its available state highway dollars, which would mean new roads could not be built.

MnDOT estimated annual preservation needs of $672 million beginning in 2012, but expects only to have $635 million to $700 million annually to spend.

The audit also found that while MnDOT officials almost always complete routine bridge inspections on time, it needs more money to timely complete in-depth reviews of so-called "fracture critical" bridges, which could collapse if one major component fails.

DFL legislators have introduced a $7.69 billion transportation funding bill to help solve the transportation problem. That includes a hike in the state's gas tax.

On this issue, Pawlenty is an ideologue, and his veto deserves to be overridden.

We hope members of his own party find the courage to do so.