The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State budget: a closer look

June 28, 2011

Shutdown would hit Mankato area MnDOT hard

MANKATO — Barring a major breakthrough today at the state Capitol, the unemployment rate on Mankato’s Bassett Drive is going to spike on Friday.

Virtually all of the roughly 200 workers at the Minnesota Department of Transportation facility on Bassett Drive will be told to stay home until a new two-year budget is agreed to by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature. And the impact will be even larger for private contractors who will see projects suspended across the state.

“We’re preparing,” said Rebecca Arndt, a spokeswoman for MnDOT’s Mankato-based District 7.

Projects on Highway 83 south of Mankato, on Highway 30 between Mapleton and Amboy and on Highway 14 between Waseca and Owatonna would be shuttered under the district’s plan.

“They’ll be left in as safe condition as possible to the motoring public,” Arndt said.

That means detours will be left in place on highways 83 and 30 and Highway 4 south of Sleepy Eye, where a bridge is being replaced, but no progress will be made on finishing the work. The Highway 14 expansion to four-lanes — slated to open to Waseca later this year — is the largest area project, totaling more than $56 million.

Arndt didn’t have any statistics on the number of private construction workers who would be put out of work in the region if District 7’s projects are shut down.

Republican lawmakers last week predicted 20,000 workers statewide would be left without work in transportation related jobs — about 4,900 at MnDOT, nearly 2,000 at the Department of Public Safety and the rest at private firms with state construction contracts.

MnDOT is doing its shutdown preparation based on recommendations made by the Dayton administration to Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin — who has been assigned to decide which core state government functions will continue to operate if the current two-year budget expires on June 30 without a new budget to take its place.

Dayton’s recommendation for MnDOT is that 217 workers statewide continue to be paid — mainly to deal with problems cropping up on highways that can’t wait to be fixed. A small contingent of those would be in District 7.

“The only activities we’d be doing is emergency highway repair out of this office,” Arndt said.

Rest areas — including those on Highway 169 near Le Sueur, on Highway 60 outside of St. James, and on Interstate 90 at Blue Earth — will also be closed. And landowners or utilities needing MnDOT permits to do work on highway right-of-way might be out of luck.

MnDOT’s plans could change once Gearin issues her rulings today or Thursday.

But highway construction projects — even those being done by private firms with previously allocated funding — can’t continue without the MnDOT inspectors who oversee the private contractors, Arndt said.

That oversight includes taking samples of the materials being used, having them tested at the MnDOT lab in Mankato and making sure they meet specifications for quality and strength, she said. The work is vital in ensuring that “taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.”

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