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Transportation issues big this year

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ST. PAUL -- Motorists witnessing a burst of road construction in the coming years may like a transportation package lawmakers approved this year, but teenage drivers may think proposed driving restrictions are, like, totally not cool.

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Farmers might have to find new routes to market, while commuters watching their pocketbook may bemoan new charges they are paying for transportation projects.

Those are among responses Minnesotans may have to the 2008 Legislature, which made this an extraordinarily big year for transportation at the Capitol.

Some of the changes lawmakers sought will be noticed soon, while others will be noted gradually.

For instance, lawmakers who put a transportation spending package funded by borrowed funds and tax and fee increases into law called it a historic investment in roads and bridges. Yet its impact may not be obvious to many for at least a year.

"Some of them may not notice anything, except if they have a project in their area," said Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, the House transportation leader.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation accelerated a handful of state road and bridge projects this year, but far more construction is planned for 2009 and 2010, when the agency spends 25 percent and 88 percent, respectively, more than earlier planned.

Local governments could take a similar approach to the transportation funds they receive, but also will factor in rising construction costs, said Carol Lovro of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

"I know with the anticipated increase in revenues, they were ramping up," Lovro said.

The Democrat-led Legislature sent Gov. Tim Pawlenty a transportation policy bill on the session's final day. It awaits the governor's approval or veto.

But Pawlenty, a Republican, said he supports a key part of the legislation - additional limits for drivers who are 16 or 17 and in their first year of licensure. Those limits include:

-- Prohibiting new license holders from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. for their first six months, although exceptions include driving between home and school and home and work and driving with a licensed driver who is at least 25 years old.

-- Limiting new drivers in their first six months to one passenger under age 20, excluding immediately family, and permitting up to three passengers under 20 during the second six months of licensure.

"These really for teens aren't negative, they're positive," said Katherine Burke Moore, deputy director of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.

Just over 106,000 16- and 17-year-olds had a provisional driver's license last year, Burke Moore said.

Traffic officials say Minnesota is one of only four states without such requirements. States that enacted similar measures saw a 9 percent to 30 percent reduction in teen crashes. In Minnesota, about 80 teens are killed on the roadways annually and another 6,000 are injured.

"Now they're going to be in an environment where there's not yelling and screaming in their ears" from young passengers, Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said of the proposed measure's effect.

Farmers, too, could be affected by lawmakers' transportation work this session. The bill awaiting Pawlenty's approval or veto would require farm implements to follow bridge weight limits after 2009, ending an exemption.

Agriculture groups said they supported the measure out of concern for infrastructure, but said it will force farmers to adapt.

"I think it is a significant change," Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said. "If I've got a bridge with a total weight limit that can't take any good-sized trucks, I'll have to find a different route to get my goods to market."

A high-profile transportation proposal - allowing law enforcement to stop unbuckled motorists just for that reason - did not make it into law.

Minnesota already requires motorists wear seat belts, but some lawmakers wanted to make it a primary offense, meaning law enforcement could pull over a vehicle the primary seat belt law would h

"It's unfortunate," said Murphy, the Red Wing Democrat and leading legislative advocate for tightening the seat belt law.

That provision and one requiring children under age 8 use child-safety seats failed to become law amid objections, including from Minnesota House members who argued government was overstepping its role.

Murphy said he will try to pass the primary seat belt law again next year.

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