Legislature on roads, transit: ‘You can’t even really call it a band-aid’

MinnPost file photo by Karen Boros
The Legislature this year appropriated just $11.4 million to fix potholes in 87 counties.

If you’re not too pleased with Minnesota’s road conditions these days, you can hustle over to the State Capitol Tuesday morning (10 a.m., Room 125) and sign a band-aid.

According to MoveMN, a coalition of 170 groups pushing for better roads and public transit, the giant band-aid on which it has collected 2,000 signatures symbolizes the kind of help the state Legislature gave our ailing and incomplete transportation system this session. (If you can’t attend, you can sign the group’s petition.)

It’s not as though there wasn’t acknowledgement that more is needed. In 2012 a transportation funding committee appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton calculated that the state has to spend $21 billion over the next 20 years merely to maintain its the roads and bridges and $50 billion to create a “world-class sytem,” including transit in the Twin Cities and in Greater Minnesota.

‘Nice gesture, but it doesn’t do the job’

The Legislature this year instead appropriated just $11.4 million to fix potholes in 87 counties and another $3.6 million for cities, for a total of $15 million. “That’s about $100,000 per county,” says Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a prominent member of MoveMN. Considering that each pothole costs about $1,000 to repair, “It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t do the job,” she adds.

No kidding. According to James Erkel, director of the Land Use & Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, it doesn’t even do the Job du Jour — taking care of the roads in 2014. He analyzed state auditor reports, which set forth what cities and counties plan to spend on roads this year. Here are the data:

Current Expenditures (maintenance and repairs, sweeping, snow removal) (millions)Capital Outlays (major rehabilitation and improvement projects)(millions)Total (millions)
Cities$498,873,007$171,510,656$670,383,663
Counties$427,110,607$647,954,741$1,075,065,348
Total$925,983,614$819,465,397$1,745,449,011

The Legislature’s one-time fix of $15 million is 1.3 percent of the current expenditures that cities and counties plan for this year alone and a pathetic 0.9 percent of everything they plan to spend.

“You can’t even really call it a band-aid,” says Erkel. “Band-aids provide at least some beneficial effects. This is more like one of those little dots.” I think he means the ones you use for the tiniest of boohoos on a hypochondriacal 2-year-old. 

That’s a crushingly disappointing finish to a year when the stars seemed to align and point toward progress. MoveMN, which got off the ground late last year, united about 170 disparate transportation groups which previously had been at each other’s throats: The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, which includes construction and engineering groups, unions and city governments, nornally in favor of road-building to the exclusion of all else; Transit for a Stronger Economy, a consortium of 50 groups plumping for light rail, buses and other mass transportation; and biking-walking groups.

What’s more, the DFL holds all the reins of power, and the party platform [PDF] calls for “well-designed and maintained roads and bridges throughout the state” and “increased investment in Minnesota’s transportation and infrastructure, on a regional and statewide basis, including public transportation, mass transit, commuter rail corridor, light rail, buses, pedestrians and bicycles.” The state also found itself with a $1.23 billion budget surplus, an amount that would encourage legislators, one would think, to get a little bit spendy on transportation infrastructure.

And, what MoveMN asked for wasn’t exactly earth-shaking. It was merely looking for the Legislature to provide ongoing sources of revenue that would be devoted to transportation — so that projects wouldn’t be subject to the political whims of whatever party happened to be in power.

Among the proposals:

  • Close the leased vehicle sales tax loophole. In 2006, voters endorsed a constitutional amendment requiring that the existing motor vehicle sales tax be earmarked transportation. But the measure did not include sales taxes from leased vehicles. That was partly fixed two years later, but only a portion of the money is devoted to transportation. Allocating all of the leased vehicle sales tax to highway and transit funding would raise $32 million annually, without increasing taxes.

  • Increase the sales tax by ¾ cent in the seven-county metro. Currently, the transit tax is 1/4 cent. The extra amount would bring total annual revenues for transit to $335 million; a small portion could fund bike and pedestrian connections in the metro.  
  • Tax wholesale fuel. Because cars have become so much more efficient, the gas tax no longer produces enough money to maintain and repair roads. A 5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel, also called the fuel gross receipts tax, would stabilize the source of transportation funding and increase with inflation. Minnesota’s current gas tax would remain the same. The new sales tax would raise an estimated $360 million annually in new transportation funding.

This rather modest program managed to survive the House and Senate transportation financing committees, but it got stuck in the tax and financing committees.

There were all manner of excuses from legislators. It is not a “budget year.” It is a short session. It’s an election year. “They raised the gas tax in 2008, and that was an election year,” says Donahoe, sounding a bit frustrated. Nonetheless, the DFL leadership did not want legislators to have to vote on new taxes before running again, says Erkel. Another negative: lack of support from the state’s Chamber of Commerce, which hadn’t recovered from the sting of tax increases passed last year.

Donahoe says that MoveMN will be back to do battle in 2015. The governor and the DFL leadership have both promised to make transportation finance a priority next year — if they’re re-elected, of course. 

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 05/13/2014 - 10:55 am.

    Gosh, it almost sounds like way may have overbuilt our roads and we maybe shouldn’t keep building more.

  2. Submitted by John Clouse on 05/13/2014 - 11:37 am.

    Roads

    I see no evidence of nearly $1B being spent on road repair. Do we have to wait until July for repairs to get started?

    One of the worst, most obvious, roads needing repair is the stretch in front of the Walker Art Center. Both Lyndale and Hennepin Avenues.
    This is a highly-visible, tourist-oriented roadway.
    Is there a battle between the city and county as to who is responsible for its repair/replacement? It’s been in terrible shape since before the Walker expansion!

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/13/2014 - 02:40 pm.

      That stretch of road in the bottleneck…

      …turns every vehicle into a stagecoach.

      Some unit of government might save, say, $50,000 or so postponing the repairs to that stretch of road, but I wonder how many millions are lost in degrading the condition of vehicles – their front ends, suspension, tires ??

    • Submitted by David Greene on 05/13/2014 - 02:50 pm.

      The Bottleneck

      It’s going to be reconstructed next year, I believe. There’s no sense in spending a ton of money on it now when it’s only going to be completely ripped up in a year.

    • Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 05/18/2014 - 11:04 am.

      by the Walker

      You may be interested in http://www.hennepinlyndaleproject.com.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/13/2014 - 01:15 pm.

    In the meanwhile

    Not only are the current roads questionably organized, poorly maintained, and outdated, I’m waiting to see how badly this year’s potholes are going to wreck my car. Yes, I would prefer to take public transportation to/from work, but that’s not an option, so add another big insult to injury.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/13/2014 - 02:36 pm.

    More taxes – run on it.

    DFL – please embrace these proposed tax increases this year! At least, run for re-election campaigning on even higher fuel taxes.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/13/2014 - 08:13 pm.

    What’s the math?

    Surely someone among the 170 transportation groups has done the math… What will it do to my / your / our tax bill(s) if we actually appropriated and spent the necessary $21 billion over the next 20 years to maintain what we have, and the $50 billion to build a “world-class” transportation system?

    I don’t personally care if the road system is “world-class,” but it ought to be safely drivable for the purposes intended – that is, for high-speed travel on genuine highways, for more moderate speeds, but heavier volume, on city and county roads, etc. We currently have roads in the heart of the state’s biggest city (e.g., Hennepin/Lyndale) that are Third World in quality and safety – and that’s for cars, trucks and buses. It’s far worse at that intersection if you’re a cyclist or pedestrian.

    So, what will it cost? If it’s going to triple my taxes, then I’m sorry, but I’ll have to go over to the Republican side and argue against it. On a fixed income, I can’t afford to triple my taxes. Since I’m sure I’m not the only one in that position, there may be some truth to Jeff Klein’s comment. Perhaps what we have already is… um… genuinely unsustainable. Perhaps we not only can’t build new roads, we can’t maintain the roads we have, and eventually will have to do what Texas has done under Rick Perry, which is to remove the pavement from many miles of rural highway and return them to their previous state as gravel roads, which require far, far less maintenance and are thus much less expensive.

    I can’t bring myself to endorse Governor Perry in any general sense, but it does seem possible, even though Minnesota is far smaller than Texas, that – if we’re not willing to pay the necessary tax bill, or if it’s simply too much for the state’s population as a whole to bear – we might have to admit that we’re not able to keep up with the maintenance costs of all the paved roads in the state, and some of them will have to be allowed to revert to “all-weather” but unpaved status.

    I can’t say I’m enthused about that, but if the DFL, with a budget surplus and control of both houses of the legislature plus the Governor’s office, isn’t willing to do more than apply a cold compress, not even a band-aid, to a statewide epidemic of failing roads, there seems little cause for optimism in future years.

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 05/13/2014 - 09:01 pm.

    Infrastructure Matters

    I find it ironic that the DFL folks keep saying how we need to fund and take care of our infrastructure. Yet they seem to be spending on everything but. I guess that is not a surprise.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/15/2014 - 09:08 am.

      If you rewind the clock two years to when Republicans had the majority, they put the same amount of money in their bonding bills for roads as the DFL is now. Let’s also remember who supported the last gas tax increase that actually put a lot more money towards roads and bridges, and which party ostracized the members that did vote for such a package…

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