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

The Legislature this year appropriated a paltry $11.4 million to fix potholes in 87 counties and another $3.6 million for cities.

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

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.

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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.

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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.