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Are we there yet? MnDOT takes stock

The vast majority of MnDOT’s funding is earmarked for highways; other modes have to fight for undedicated funds.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation devotes considerable resources to long-range planning and annual evaluation of all the cogs in the system.
Courtesy of MnDOT

Minnesota has 142,000 miles of streets and highways, 4,458 miles of railroad track, 3,880 miles of walking and biking trails, 135 public airports, 77 counties with full transit service and nine ports for waterways shipment. Practically all of this multibillion-dollar array of transportation infrastructure is a product of intensive public planning. It won’t keep underpinning our access, mobility, safety and prosperity without continued efforts to smartly map out maintenance, rebuilding, repurposing and expansion across all the modes.

Conrad deFiebre
Courtesy of MN2020
Conrad deFiebre

That’s why the Minnesota Department of Transportation devotes considerable resources to long-range planning and annual evaluation of all the cogs in the system. Two recent releases from MnDOT give the latest updates on where we are and where we’re going over the next two decades.

Where we are: The 2011 Minnesota Transportation Performance Report celebrates successes in traffic safety, bridge conditions and snow clearance, but points up concerns over road deterioration, Greater Minnesota transit service and delayed bridge inspections.

Where we’re going: The Minnesota Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan looks 20 years into a future full of “multimodal solutions that ensure a high return on investment while considering the context of place, and how land use and transportation systems should be better integrated.”

That quote epitomizes the density of these reports, which total 160 pages of small type, maps, charts and graphs. It’s a lot to digest, so here’s a CliffsNotes summary:

  • On the bright side, the performance report highlights 2011’s state traffic death toll of 368, the lowest since World War II and just over half the fatalities recorded as recently as 2002. Serious traffic injuries fell more than half in the same period, from 2,807 to 1,159. The biggest reductions came in deaths of unbelted and under-21 vehicle occupants, both subjects of tougher state policies in the past decade.
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  • Even before the deadly 2007 collapse of I-35W over the Mississipi River, Minnesota bridges have well exceeded state goals and national averages for structural soundness. Subsequently, a $2.1 billion program through 2018 to repair or replace 120 deficient state highway bridges has further improved matters. By the end of this year, MnDOT says, “77 bridges in the program will be substantially complete.”
  • Mild, dry weather last winter helped MnDOT’s 1,700 plow drivers clear 30,000 lane-miles of state highways within target times 88 percent of the time, the best result ever recorded. Aided by state-of-the-art anti-icing technology, they’ve met the 70 percent target in nine of the past 10 winters.
  • On the down side, state highway pavement condition declined last year and is projected to keep getting worse through at least 2015. Not surprisingly, maintenance shortfalls have led to less of what MnDOT calls “customer satisfaction,” with more drivers complaining about bumpy, crumbling roads. MnDOT noted that the state’s overall road condition temporarily improved in 2010, thanks largely to federal stimulus funding, now discontinued.
  • A record 11.5 million riders boarded transit buses in Greater Minnesota last year, even though the system still falls far short of state targets for service hours. There’s little prospect for improvement “as inflation outpaces the combined total of federal, state and local funding sources for transit,” the performance report states. “Because transit need is projected to increase, the result will be a widening gap between need and the level of service provided.” A slightly brighter note: Only two Minnesota counties, Waseca and Wilkin, still lack any transit service at all. Eight more have only municipal routes. The rest have countywide coverage.
  • Last year’s three-week government shutdown delayed inspections for 4 percent of the state’s bridges. The official goal since the 2007 disaster has been that every bridge gets inspected on time. MnDOT has mostly improved on that score in the past five years with increased funding, staffing and equipment.

The planning document outlines several “significant changes to MnDOT’s planning and investment approach.”

  • Transportation solutions will emphasize wringing high benefits from constrained resources, such as coordinated signal timing, safer intersections and expanded transit service in Greater Minnesota, plus active traffic control and managed freeway lanes in the Twin Cities.
  • Strategic management of the highway system will require letting some roads deteriorate while others get more investment based on connectivity and accessibility. It could also involve ceding some state highways to counties and local governments following “a comprehensive review of current roadway use and ownership” to better serve statewide and local priorities.
  • Building to “a maintainable scale to keep Minnesota’s transportation system on a sustainable track.” This involves evaluating risks to the state’s economy, environment and quality of life in all capital, operating and maintenance investment decisions, MnDOT says.
  • A greater commitment to multimodal strategies in light of recent declines in driving and increases in other forms of travel, especially public transit. Since 2004, vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota have flattened and then slightly declined, while statewide transit ridership grew by 38 percent.

That finding alone should spur serious rethinking of the ways we meet our travel needs. But MnDOT, once known as the Minnesota Highway Department, can’t do it alone. The vast majority of its funding is earmarked for highways; other modes have to fight for undedicated moneys. It will take bold policy leadership to build and maintain a truly multimodal, sustainable transportation system that meets the challenges of the 21st century.

Conrad deFiebre is a  Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article first appeared on its website.


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