Legislative audit finds financial pothole in funding roads and bridges

The Minnesota Department of Transportation doesn’t have enough money to adequately preserve the 4,500 bridges and 12,000 miles of roads in the state trunk highway system, and it faces a “grim” future funding picture that is expected to double the percentage of road miles that will deteriorate into “poor condition” between now and 2011.

So says the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor in its 85-page Evaluation Report of State Highways and Bridges, delivered to lawmakers this afternoon.

“In recent years, Minnesota has used debt financing for highway expansion projects but has not invested adequately to maintain many existing highways,” states the independent audit on the first page of its summary of “Major Findings.”

According to the report, from 1997-2002, MnDOT hewed to its policy of “preservation first” by devoting 65 percent of its trunk highway resources to maintaining existing roads and bridges and only 35 percent on expanding the system. But from 2002-2007, the state leveraged debt through massive bonding projects for new roads and bridges and spent less than half of its trunk highway dollars on preservation.

Shift in emphasis is Pawlenty’s doing

This shift in emphasis is the result of purposeful actions by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his administration. In 2003, the Legislature acceded to Pawlenty’s plan to bond for $800 million in highway and bridge money and pay off part of the 20-year bonds with tens of millions of federal dollars originally designated for highway maintenance.

Since then, the governor has vetoed two comprehensive transportation funding bills passed with bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. Meanwhile, real-dollar revenues for Minnesota’s motor vehicle and fuel taxes have declined since 2003.

Consequently, the audit report concludes: “Although MnDOT is spending more on construction than in the past, state trunk highway pavement conditions have deteriorated.” OLA staff member Deborah Parker Junod noted at today’s unveiling of the report that delaying maintenance on roads and bridges can ultimately raise the cost of repairs over the long run, further exacerbating the financial squeeze.

In any case, MnDOT itself estimates that the annual cost for trunk highway maintenance between 2012 and 2018 will be $672 million.

Road, bridge repairs will eat up all MnDOT monies
Yet estimates of existing revenue streams for that period indicate that MnDOT will have only $635 million to $700 million to spend each year. In other words, virtually all trunk highway monies would be devoted to repairs — no new roads — for six years.

Other items cited as “Major Findings” in the report:

• MnDOT has consistently scheduled more state trunk highway projects than it could deliver with existing funding.

• Although Minnesota does not have a shortage of certified bridge inspectors, MnDOT needs additional resources to conduct specialized inspections of fracture-critical bridges. (In his introductory remarks at the release of the report, Legislative Auditor James Nobles stressed that the scope of this report did not directly involve looking into the causes of the I-35 bridge collapse last August.)

• MnDOT districts reported performing the high-priority work recommended by bridge inspectors but said they are falling behind on routine maintenance.

Embattled MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau (who is also the state’s lieutenant governor) thanked the OLA for its report and said the agency already has begun working diligently to implement its recommendations for improvement. In particular, Molnau said, “more must be invested in preservation,” instead of expansion of roads and bridges. “Could we use more resources?” she asked rhetorically. “Of course.”

The independent audit was released in the same week that both the House and Senate will be debating a comprehensive, mulitibillion-dollar transportation funding bill, which seeks increases in the gas tax and the sales tax for transit in the metro area, among other items.

Pawlenty, with Molnau’s support, has stated that he will veto the bill. Pawlenty’s sole recommendation for transportation thus far this legislative session involves borrowing more than $400 million for local roads and bridges through the bonding bill. Even if passed, none of that locally designated money would affect the roads and bridges cited in the OLA report, which examined the state trunk highway system.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Matty Lang on 02/21/2008 - 07:26 am.

    Thanks for the great article Britt. It’s good to see that there’s finally a non-partisan source of research that is exposing the void behind the Pawlenty/Molnau transportation curtain.

    While having no apparent grasp of what a high quality multi-modal transportation system means to the economy of Minnesota Team Pawlenty has employed its Grover Norquist designed “no taxes/kill government by budget cuts” philosophy nearly without discrimination to MnDOT. They’ve thrown a few shinny bones to the outer suburbs in the form of expanded freeways that have already or will quickly clog up with congestion like the rest of the system.

    We obviously need a new model to fund our transportation system that includes high quality transit to lessen the demand on existing roads. When the Minnesota Timberwolves realized that their plan for success wasn’t working they decided to make a change and it seems to be paying off. In contrast, Team Pawlenty continues to do the same thing that doesn’t work–threatening vetoes–and they expect results? Perhaps Team Pawelenty isn’t interested in solving Minnesota’s transportation problem?

    (I’m also a fan of Britt’s On the Ball column.)

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