Details emerge on federal infrastructure funding

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Dec. 15—MANKATO — Minnesota lawmakers got more details Tuesday on how the recent federal infrastructure bill will impact Minnesota's transportation system, but questions remain over when and how that money will be released to the state.

Policy experts and state officials walked legislators through the federal infrastructure package in a joint hearing between the House Capital Investment and Transportation committees.

Minnesota will receive about $6.8 billion over the next few years for a variety of infrastructure projects. About $4.5 billion will go toward road projects, with another $302 million for bridge work and $818 million toward improving the state's public transportation. The state will get about $68 million to help build an electric vehicle charging station network.

All that money is divided into a multitude of existing and newfound programs, some of which will require matching funding from state or local resources. In addition, state officials are busy estimating how much Minnesota may kick in if officials apply for new federal transportation grant programs.

Yet much of the funding Minnesota is set to receive isn't technically available. While Congress passed the infrastructure package last month, federal officials have yet to formalize how that money will be appropriated, or distributed, to states. Watchdogs hope the appropriation process wraps up by the time Congress's budget continuing resolution ends on Feb. 18.

Ben Husch with the National Conference of State Legislatures told lawmakers waiting for funding information isn't necessarily a bad thing, however.

"It provides states with a bit of time to learn more about what's in the bill," he said.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials estimate the $1 trillion federal bill, about $550 billion of which represents new funding and programs, will provide about a 30% increase in the state's highway formula funding.

At the same time, the new funding and potential grant programs could mean tens of millions of dollars in matching money from the state. One projection, estimating Minnesota receives an equal funding share among other states from new transportation programs, could mean Minnesota gets close to $800 million in federal dollars every year but would have to match that with more than $180 million from state or local sources annually.

MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said transportation officials haven't determined which projects from the agency's backlog will receive incoming funds. She said the agency plans to get feedback from lawmakers, local officials and the public before identifying potential future projects.

Even then, those projects likely won't be new, and likely will take several years to start even if funding becomes available soon.

"Ultimately, transportation is really about connecting people together, and so talking to a broader group of folks is going to be very important as we move forward," she said.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, asked whether some state programs such as Corridors of Commerce could receive federal funding. Anderson Kelliher said Corridors of Commerce could be considered matching funding for future federal aid programs.

Torkelson said after the meeting he was pleased the agency is taking the initiative in applying for federal programs. At the same time, he and other lawmakers say questions remain over what input the Legislature will have over how federal money is spent over the next few years.

"We want to make sure that the projects that we're pursuing are good investments of federal and state dollars," he said.

Torkelson and Rep. Luke Frederick, DFL-Mankato, agree lawmakers need to jump on authorizing matching funding and federal aid as soon as more details are worked out. Several lawmakers expressed concern during the hearing that House and Senate leaders may tie some of the federal infrastructure aid up in budget negotiations that likely won't be resolved until the final days of next year's legislative session, if at all.

"I cannot in good conscience tell you that there aren't people out there who think that waiting until the last minute gets them leverage to get what they want," Frederick said. "I'm guessing we're going to see people continue to think that way."

Frederick said lawmakers will likely spend the first month of the 2022 session starting Jan. 31 discussing the federal infrastructure bill's impact in committee hearings and floor sessions. He said he's looking forward to learning more about the $68 million in federal aid allotted to electric vehicle charging stations, an issue he championed during this year's legislative session, among other things.