Minnesota’s transportation system needs more money

Existing revenue streams for transportation funding are proving insufficient.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation
Existing revenue streams for transportation funding are proving insufficient.

Just three years after the passage of a major state transportation funding bill, Minnesota transportation advocates are beginning a public education campaign for another increase in funding to address what they see as major unmet needs.

They hope to enlist support from the business community to make the case that increased infrastructure investments are critical to growing the economy of the state and the Twin Cities metro area, and keeping us competitive with other regions around the nation and world.

These goals were articulated a forum held Monday in St. Paul by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

No one offered any specific funding proposals, but there appeared to be general agreement that existing revenue streams are insufficient.

Indeed, the gasoline tax — a major source of highway and bridge funding — is likely to be eroded in the coming years as more Minnesotans purchase fuel-efficient and electricity-powered vehicles.

MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel said DFL Gov. Mark Dayton soon will be establishing a transportation finance task force to explore alternative revenue sources that would help fund “a multi-modal transportation system for years to come.”

Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said her group estimates the state’s unmet needs at $30 billion over the next 20 years — or $1.5 billion a year.

She said the needs — detailed in the group’s report “Roadmap to the Future” [PDF] —  are based largely on the adopted long-range plans of various agencies for roads and bridges, transit, freight and passenger rail, and ports and waterways.

Growth & Justice report
In another recent report, [PDF] Growth & Justice, the left-leaning advocacy group, also made the case for increased investment in transportation infrastructure to improve the state’s economic well-being and quality of life.

But to minimize costs, the group argued, “Minnesota’s public sector must pursue smart and innovative strategies to increase the efficiency of existing roadways, boost transit use, spur more travel on bike and foot, change land-use patterns, and otherwise lower the demand for limited space on crowded highways.”

In their latest transportation plans, both MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council appear to be heading in exactly these directions.

Still, Donahoe attempted to make the case Monday that increased transportation investments are critical growing the state’s economy and attracting new jobs.

She said businesses that consider locating here want to know the state has a strong, interconnected transportation system that can move people and goods. Transportation construction supports some 60,000 jobs in Minnesota and transportation investments yield $1.60 in economic growth for every $1 invested, she added.

Business representatives
To help buttress Donahoe’s case, the forum’s sponsors enlisted representatives from the business community.

Charlie Zelle, president of Jefferson Lines, said when business site locators visit the Twin Cities, they always look at the transportation system and “want to know where future transportation assets are going to be.”

Zelle said a well-integrated, multi-modal transportation system also is important in recruiting and retaining young, well-educated workers essential in a knowledge-based economy.

Google Transit is the way every young person understands you determine how to get from here to there,” said Zelle. “It’s not just about where you drive your car.”

Vince Montgomery, president of TKDA, a St. Paul-based architectural and engineering firm, echoed that view. Montgomery said his firm relocated its Chicago office to accommodate the transit needs of its employees there and that transit also is important to employees in the firm’s St. Paul office.

In 2008, transportation advocates achieved the first major increase in state transportation funding in 20 years. It included an 8.5-cent a gallon increase in the gasoline tax, an adjustment to auto license fees and authority for the seven metro counties to levy a quarter-center sales tax for transit (which five counties approved).

After the meeting, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Tom Hesse said it would be very difficult to get the current Republican-controlled Legislature to approve another transportation funding bill that included tax increases. The chamber was instrumental in helping to secure legislative override of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the 2008 bill.

“Our members are focused on making sure the additional funds approved in 2008 are used as effectively as possible,” he said.

Donahoe responded that she is realistic enough to recognize that passage of another major transportation funding package will take time.

“I would say it will require more of a longer-term process to build a consensus,” she said. “We know these things take time. But we’d rather not wait another 20 years.”

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Luke Ferguson on 11/29/2011 - 10:00 am.

    Right now, consumers and businesses don’t pay anywhere near what it costs to travel over roads. Gas and vehicle taxes and licensing don’t cover what it costs to maintain a roadway, so other tax dollars go into roads.

    This essentially subsidizes what it costs to move goods around the country, keeping prices on those goods artificially low. Especially considering the extra strain commercial trucking places on public roads.

    Our current system is outdated and is not going to work as our gasoline consumption continues to drop. We need to re-think how we charge people to drive on our roads.

    I certainly don’t think there’s an easy answer, but I’m at least glad that Governor Dayton is starting to look into it.

    Further reading:

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 11/29/2011 - 10:32 am.

    We don’t have enough money to properly maintain our current roads. The result is that they are being allowed to deteriorate until they require major repairs or replacement.

    Yet, we can afford an expensive new bridge across the St. Croix river that will spur rural development in Wisconsin, adding even more traffic roads in Minnesota and putting more pressure on its taxpayers.

    And the St. Croix bridge is hardly the only investment that will make things worse. Most of MnDOT’s “investments” in new capacity just move congestion downstream where they “warrant” further investment. The result is increased traffic and increased congestion. The opposite of where we ought to be headed.

    We have a MnDOT-Industrial complex. We are building new roads whose only real value is to provide profits for road contractors and work for highly paid equipment operators who are members of the building trades. Good politics, lousy economics.

    Its time to stop adding road capacity and invest in adequately maintaining the roads we have. Our current approach is like not painting your house and waiting for the siding to rot. Then you justify the need for a new house on the basis its not that much more expensive than replacing the rotten siding. It makes sense if you are a home builder, but not so much if you are the home owners.

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 11/29/2011 - 11:33 am.

    Ross is right on. I’ll add a bit more.

    We need better balance between road and transit investment. Right now almost all of the federal flexible transportation dollars we get goes to roads. In the metro area, where we have more freeway lane-miles per capita than L.A., this is insane. It’s a colossal waste of money.

    We should shift some of that money over to expand our transit system and pay to operate it.

    We need a fix it first roads strategy and greater investment in transit to more efficiently move people, freeing up road capacity for goods.

    Zelle is correct that the younger generation expects transit. I’ve talked to several new hires at my company and to managers who failed to hire top-quality candidates. In all of those conversations, transit got mentioned as an important quality of life issue to the candidates and new employees.

  4. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/29/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    I was glad to see this quote:

    “increase the efficiency of existing roadways, boost transit use, spur more travel on bike and foot, change land-use patterns, and otherwise lower the demand for limited space on crowded highways.”

    It is a choice. Urbanize our development to move more people and things for the money or spend large amounts of money to make suburbs. You can’t have cheap suburban development.

  5. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 11/29/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    It’s easier to get money for new projects than for maintenance, which of course eventually compounds the maintenance problem from both delay and more stuff to maintain. We keep building expensive roads that encourage sprawl, then we have to pay to maintain them, and there are always a pack of developers to develop the new edge of the metro area, and of course then they want taxpayers to provide them the infrastructure to make their projects viable. The rinse and repeat method of infrastructure. We should consider a moratorium on any transportation work that’s not maintenance or in-fill. Maybe after a few years we’ll catch up.

  6. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 11/29/2011 - 03:08 pm.

    Don Shelby says no to more roads and thus more cars!!! Anything to stop the onslaught of Global Warming!!! We all need to walk and take the bus….except for Don that is.

  7. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 11/29/2011 - 03:30 pm.

    I agree with most of the points above. One I’ll add is that our gas tax is ineffective since it’s not tied to inflation. Nearly everything else we buy is taxed at a rate instead of a fixed price per unit, so it accounts for inflation. Despite the 8.5 cent “increase” in the gas tax in nominal terms, the tax has eroded in real terms by over half since the early 80s. If it had kept pace with inflation, we would be seeing an extra $8 to 10 billion a year for MnDOT (1c in tax = $500m/yr revenue per MnDOT). If it was an ad valorem tax, it would be likely DOUBLE since gas prices have significantly outstripped inflation. Just think what maintenance we could do with an additional $8-20 billion a year!

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/29/2011 - 04:38 pm.

    Public transit was greatly harmed during the Pawlenty years. His cuts in funding each year had to be translated into cuts in service frequency and the number of routes. The bus company did the best it could but, among other inconveniences, some bus riders had to leave for work an hour earlier because of service reductions.

    It is definitely time to reverse those funding cuts, but that may not be possible this year considering the current makeup of the legislature.

  9. Submitted by Matt Zeller on 11/30/2011 - 07:59 pm.

    Whether you support more roads or more transit one thing is for sure, we cannot maintain the roads that are currently in service. It is doubtful the public will agree to taking roads out of service. As such, we have two options: 1)raise more funds or 2)like most things these days we need to be more efficient in our spending. We are getting to the end of the service life of most of our highways and freeways which were built in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The maintenance options being used are very short term and offer a very low return on investment (cost/mile/year). As we are maintaining our current system we need to invest in long term solutions to give a greater return on investment. That may mean less miles fixed each year, but longer lasting roads. Concrete pavements can be placed over either old concrete or blacktop. Concrete pavement can give the taxpayers the longest life repair for the best price and when analyzed over the life of the pavement offers the best cost/mile/year. Changing philosophies can be hard, but it is time for change.

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