Parsing out the pork

Categories: National

There were plenty of huzzahs flying around on Wednesday over President Bush's signing of the $286.4 billion transportation bill--the "biggest public-works legislation in history," as dailies (online, at least) across the country dutifully recounted.

Some $3.5 billion in pork came to simmer in Minnesota, thanks in no small part to our stalwart congressional delegates, most notably house reps Martin Olav Sabo and James Oberstar--who, as members of the house appropriations and transportation committees, respectively, have each earned the reputation for bringing home the bacon over the years.

Even so, Senator Norm Coleman, the master of the press release, wasted no time butting in on the proceedings. "One of my top priorities as the United States Senator from Minnesota is to make sure that we grow jobs and grow our economy," Coleman "said" in a missive that came across the transom just hours after Dubya made it official. (Read that quote in Mayor Quimby's voice to soak up the full effect of Coleman's self-aggrandizing.) "I'm pleased to report that after two years of hard work, the President has signed into law a comprehensive highway bill that does just that."

Coleman concluded that, "Today's signing of a long-awaited highway bill is a big victory for Minnesota."

Indeed, the law will go a long way toward ensuring that Minnesotans will be good little oil-consumers, as only $166 million of the "transit" money will go to something other than keeping commuters in their cars. But the windfall for the state means, at the very least, that folks like Coleman, Oberstar and Sabo will get elected over and over again.

Because of this, some were skeptical of the "big victory."

The bill earmarks $7.6 million for "Interstate highway 35W access to Lake Street," thanks in large part to Sabo. The lawmaker has been very adept at funneling federal dollars to a controversial and (for now) stalemated project for several years. What this money means now is anyone's guess.

Sean Wherley, a longtime opponent of the move to add entrance and exit ramps at Lake and I-35W in the heart of Minneapolis, is less than sanguine. "It's not nearly enough to launch the project," Wherley notes, for starters, adding that at least $200 million from the state of Minnesota is needed for a kick start. Additionally, "It must be $20 million that [Sabo's] delivered over the years." And still the project hangs in the balance.

In Wherley's view, the money essentially will fall in the hands of Smith Parker, a public policy law firm that headquarters in a lush suite atop the Colwell Building in the Warehouse District. The firm has a contract with the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County to oversee the so-called "Access Project." For three years now, Smith Parker has played the bad cop in a proposal that, according to detractors, will reshuffle businesses, blight homes, and do nothing to alleviate traffic. Citizens and business owners in the area can barely contain there contempt for the company.

That's not to say Smith Parker deserves any pity. "How much of that money is going to Smith Parker?" Wherley asks, rhetorically. "I don't know where else it's going. They'll say it will go to design work, but there's been plenty of blueprints drawn up for this. There are no other expenses on this project."

The Access Project is, in fact, part of a complicated scheme to redraw the Crosstown, I-35W south of the Crosstown, and the mess where 35 and I-94 come together. All of this revamping is years in the making. Until then, the money will continue to flow.

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