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WASHINGTON - Congressional investigators say Minnesota has spent barely half of the money available under a federal highway program intended for substandard bridges, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

But Minnesota transportation officials say the report is not an accurate reflection of the state's overall rate of investment in bridges, which they say is among the highest in the nation.

The dispute, coming nearly a year after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, arises from legislation calling for a $1.9 billion national highway bridge reconstruction program.

The bill, which the U.S. House might vote on as early as today, is sponsored by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Among other things, it would restrict the ability of states to transfer Highway Bridge Program funds to other highway and infrastructure projects.

Oberstar faults Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration for using only 51 percent of its allotted bridge program dollars for bridges over the past five years -- a rate that ties it with Arizona for last. The rate for all states from 2003-07 was 89 percent, according to a report released by Oberstar's committee.

But Minnesota officials say the bridge program is only one of many federal and state funding sources for bridge repair and reconstruction.

The federal bridge program largely limits spending to bridges classified as deficient and obsolete, and state transportation officials often prefer to transfer their federal allotments to accounts with more flexibility.

"Looking at one federal program does not capture our investment in bridges," said Abby McKenzie, director of investment management for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "When you look at actual bridge conditions, we are one of the best in the nation."

From 2003 to 2007 -- the period of the federal study -- MnDOT spent nearly $400 million on bridge replacement and repair, she said. During the same period, the state's apportionment from the federal bridge program totaled $185 million.

Just last month, MnDOT presented the Legislature with a $2.5 billion bridge replacement and repair plan for the next decade. "We are investing in infrastructure," McKenzie said.

Oberstar has sparred with MnDOT over transportation priorities over the years, and their differences were sharpened after the 35W bridge tragedy.

Part of the dispute has focused on how best to direct federal dollars to keep up nearly 1,800 bridges in the state classified as generally safe but deficient or obsolete in some way.

"It is disingenuous for MnDOT to claim that funds it has contractually obligated to its bridge repair program are not reflective of the maintenance, repairs and reconstruction those contracts funded," Oberstar said Wednesday. "Recent bridge closings in Duluth, St. Cloud, Hastings and Winona demonstrate a deficiency in MnDOT's bridge program."

According to the Federal Highway Administration, Minnesota has passed up more than $63.5 million in federal aid for substandard bridges since 2003. That's on top of another $50 million the state transferred to other programs. "No matter how you measure it, Minnesota's commitment to maintaining, repairing and replacing bridges is well below the national average," Oberstar said.

Arguing for flexibility

Officials in Minnesota and other states say they need the flexibility to address local bridge repair priorities. For example, for federal bridge dollars to be used to replace a bridge, it must have a "sufficiency rating" of 50 percent or lower on a scale of 0 to 100. The 35W bridge was given a rating of 50 in its most recent inspection in June 2006, putting it on the threshold of eligibility.

But state officials say that in most cases, they want to address deteriorating bridges before they get to that condition. "We'd hope there would be at least the flexibility to let us use that money for reconstruction and replacement when we think the bridge needs it, not by some arbitrary number," McKenzie said.

State officials worry that more federal restrictions on the use of bridge dollars could actually make things worse. "We could have the perverse impact of letting our bridges get worse, which would be really bad," McKenzie said.

Most U.S. bridges are owned by state and local governments but are subject to federal oversight. Washington provides repair dollars through the bridge program, but the total transportation allocation is reduced or "rescinded" each year subject to congressional spending limits. Last year, a near-record $3.47 billion in promised transportation dollars was rescinded, with states choosing to forfeit about a third of that money out of bridge funds.

Under Oberstar's bill, state officials could transfer bridge program funds to other projects only if they have no structurally deficient bridges in the federal highway system.

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753