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Private money to help foot highway bills

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

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Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel Tuesday said 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.

Pawlenty said a project in the western Twin Cities will receive $5 million from UnitedHealth Group as well as funds from Minnetonka and the state's economic development arm to build a new interchange that will allow the health organization to expand.

In the southeastern Minnesota town on Pine Island, a private firm is willing to donate $13 million worth of land to build an interchange serving a planned bioscience medical facility, Pawlenty said.

But Sorel said that 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."

However, the Red Wing Democrat added, he has confidence that Sorel would not accelerate a project partially funded with private money at the expense of another project designed to make a road safer.

"You are not going to leap-frog over projects that have a component of safety in them," Murphy said. "It is just not going to happen."

Pawlenty's Tuesday announcement 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.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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