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Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau, Published October 28 2009

More private money sought for Minnesota highways

ST. PAUL – Minnesota transportation officials want more private companies to pay part of the construction bill for highway projects.

Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said Tuesday his department is working on a formal method for the state and private companies to work together to fund projects such as interstate exchanges.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sorel’s boss, ordered the Minnesota Department of Transportation to increase the use of public-private partnerships, which he called P3.

Pawlenty could point to just one instance in the past where private money was used to accelerate road construction, when Best Buy built a new headquarters in Richfield. In other cases, including highways needed for Iron Range mine projects and Mall of America construction, government paid the entire bill.

Sorel said the state has yet to develop a method of working with private firms. For instance, it needs to decide whether the state or a company should initiate the idea.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, often a Pawlenty critic, praised the P3 effort.

“If there is a developer willing to put money on the table ... they are going to go to the front of the list,” Murphy said. “There is no doubt about it.”

Pawlenty’s announcement on Tuesday included reaffirmation that the state is working on highway safety projects in rural Minnesota, where 70 percent of traffic facilities occur. He announced that $3 million to $5 million will be dedicated to low-cost projects that make a big safety difference in rural areas.

Money will go to items such as easier-to-see pavement markings, intersection lighting, median barriers and rumble strips to alert drivers who leave their lanes. Specific projects have not been picked.

Murphy said Pawlenty and Sorel have helped lower Minnesota highway death tolls by adding more state troopers and improving highway safety with projects like they discussed Tuesday.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com