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Highways investment gap highlights need for alternatives

The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s recently released statewide transportation plan on policies and highway investments flags a startlingly large $50 billion gap between dollars available for roads and bridges and the $65 billion required to meet state needs in those areas over the next 20 years.

Ouch.

No surprise that under our current policies and approaches, Minnesota’s transportation needs are rising. Over the last 20 years, travel by car and truck in the state shot up at a rate nearly three times faster than population growth.

It doesn’t help that we drive more in Minnesota than they do elsewhere — fully 10 percent more on a per capita basis when compared to national rates. 

And, like other states, Minnesota has an aging transportation infrastructure in need of significant renovation and rehabilitation. We face significant costs just to keep what we have.

A fix-it-first strategy
Mn/DOT wisely plans to spend three-fourths of the projected $15 billion in highway dollars available over the next 20 years on a fix-it-first strategy, looking to preserve or replace existing roads and bridges. But the $50 billion gap is a wake-up call for us to look beyond our current  focus on more roads and more driving and pursue other strategies to address overall transportation challenges. 

To its credit, Mn/DOT’s transportation policy plan, released at the same time, acknowledges that “a more multimodal and multi-jurisdictional approach to transportation is needed to achieve major goals, including maintaining Minnesota’s economic competitiveness, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing modal choices for consumers.” Other plans addressing transit, freight, metro highways and “complete streets” will be forthcoming.

Part of the solution: regionwide transit
As noted by Mn/DOT, regionwide transit stands out as part of the solution for urban areas in the state, with its potential for improving transportation access and mobility, as well as the quality of life for many Minnesotans. Significant increases in transit use can reduce the need for more lane miles in the metropolitan area and yield the added benefits of reducing fuel consumption and air pollution.   

Traffic management strategies also have an impact on Minnesota’s roadways. The Texas Transportation Institute in Austin estimates that traffic delays for Twin Cities metro rush-hour travelers is lower by 5.5 million hours than it would be if not for traffic management approaches, such as metered ramps on freeways, rapid response to accidents and incidents, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

But to slow the high demand for travel, state, regional and local governments also must consider land-use policies. As noted in the Mn/DOT plan, “Local governments can use their planning and zoning powers to guide land uses that make efficient use of the transportation system.”

Discourage sprawl, encourage job concentration
We should discourage sprawl and encourage the concentration of jobs in downtowns and centralized employment centers. We should link affordable housing to transit lines and stops.  And we should design complete streets that work well not only for cars but for all users, including transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Even with improvements and changes in these other areas, Minnesota will still need to spend billions to address bottlenecks and fund maintenance and overhauls on roads and bridges that need attention. Billions of dollars, yes, but billions less, perhaps, than the $65 billion in needs identified.

Minnesota’s transportation system affects the economic outlook for the state and both the economic well-being and quality of life for Minnesota residents. Given the daunting needs we face for state spending on transportation, it’s past time for Minnesota to consider not just how much to build and repair highways but how best to both address and alter those needs with new investments, policies and choices.

Matt Kane is the policy and research director of Growth & Justice, a progressive think tank committed to making Minnesota’s economy simultaneously more prosperous and fair. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2009 - 07:22 pm.

    Please comment on road tax financing. Will we be able to fairly tax users without it becoming regressive?

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