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From Duluth’s ‘can of worms’ and beyond, lots of Minnesota road projects are hanging on federal infrastructure funding

An aerial view of the can of worms interchange at 21st Avenue West and Interstate 35 in Duluth.
Courtesy of the Duluth News Tribune
An aerial view of the can of worms interchange at 21st Avenue West and Interstate 35 in Duluth.

When they first opened up the can of worms, it had a planned shelf life of 50 years.

But the place where the I-35 and U.S. 53 merge in Duluth, an interchange colloquially known as the “can of worms,” is in need of major improvements. Built in the 1960s and ’70s, the interchange serves, on average, 80,000 vehicles per day. 5,300 of them are heavy commercial vehicles like trailers, trucks, and busses. It’s also a critical access point to the port of Duluth, one of the major ports of the Great Lakes.

The interchange also has the fourth highest number of crashes of any in the state. A combination of blind merges and left exits taking place on a confusing and risky mix of spaghetti strand elevated roads presents serious safety risks and hampers access to the port.

“This interchange is critical to the region because it serves as the connection between Duluth, northern Minnesota, southern Minnesota, and Wisconsin,” said Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northern Minnesota’s Eighth District in Congress, noting that in its current state, the interchange’s high crash rate causes bottlenecks and dangerous conditions around the port.

“Improving this interchange is not just important to the city of Duluth, but to the whole district and state because much of the product we produce is shipped through the Port of Duluth and by extension, taken right through that interchange.”

In 2018, the interchange received $20 million in federal funds, a win for the redesign project being pursued by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

But the can of worms is just one example of an infrastructure and public safety project currently on the docket for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And the Twin Ports Interchange Project, which contains the can of worms redesign, isn’t fully funded yet — while the entire project costs an estimated $342 million, the agency only has $299 million. An estimated additional $42 million is needed to redesign another component of the Twin Ports project, called the Garfield Avenue interchange.

“The City of Duluth receives approximately $1.2 million in federal funds through the Minnesota Transportation Program. These funds are used annually, and we are grateful for this allocation,” said Duluth’s chief administrative officer Noah Schuchman.

“Unfortunately, we have more need than available dollars,” he said, listing out other projects in need of funds like the Aerial Lift Bridge and Superior Street in the Lincoln Park district. “We welcome all sources of federal funding and will always have uses for them.”

While the can of worms portion is funded, projects like it are all around Minnesota and elsewhere around the country, are not. Beyond the Garfield interchange and other projects in Duluth, there are literally hundreds of projects in Minnesota that require federal funding to move forward over the next decade and the process will be slow without a massive infusion from a new Federal infrastructure bill.

The pace is concerning when you consider that Minnesota’s roads earned the poorest score on a report card, a D, published by the American Civil Society of Engineers in 2018. The state as a whole received a C from the organization. The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 2017 to 2037 projections place the (currently unmet) gap needed for highway funding over the next twenty years at $18 billion.

Infrastructure, weak

After state taxes, the second largest source of revenue for the Minnesota Department of Transportation is federal assistance.

The majority of federal highway funding is provided by the Highway Trust Fund, first established in 1956 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. That fund collects revenue through a federal tax on gasoline and a slightly higher tax on diesel fuel. But that tax hasn’t been raised since 1993.

Since then, successive congresses have passed new authorizing bills to keep federal infrastructure and transportation agencies like Amtrak running. While there has been talk of a significantly expanded infrastructure bill under President Donald Trump, the amount of funding has remained fairly consistent over the last few decades.

In addition to a reauthorization bill, Bill Clinton, in the midst of an impeachment investigation, managed to pass Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act in 1998, which initially provided hundreds of millions in stable loans for major projects in California, the District of Columbia, Florida, New York and Puerto Rico. By 2017, the program had provided $26 billion in assistance for federal projects.

Former Eighth District Rep. James Obserstar, then the ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee, was a key player in getting a $286.4 billion infrastructure bill signed under President George W. Bush in 2005. (All of this happened despite the mildly bad blood between Bush, who called the Iron Range “Iron Ridge,” and Obserstar, who sniped at the president by jokingly shouting at Hibbing rally: “Welcome to the Iron Ridge!”)

Congress reauthorized that same funding formula for 10 times after expiration until 2012, when President Obama signed into law an initial two year authorization, than a five year $305 billion infrastructure bill in 2015.

But almost four years into the Trump Presidency, it is unclear if the Republican president will be able to pass an expansive infrastructure bill, which has fallen by the wayside amidst a lack of clarity as to how it would be funded and what it would prioritize.

There was a moment when Trump endorsed the idea of a 25 cent increase on the gas tax. But that seemed to fall apart when the president abruptly canceled a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and said that the U.S. Mexico-Canada trade agreement must be passed before an infrastructure bill.

At this point, it may be more likely that a stop-gap bill is signed into law in order to keep agencies funded.

The two Minnesota House members who serve on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, Second District Democrat Angie Craig and Stauber,  have been allies in pushing for bipartisan legislation.

Democrats on that committee have suggested raising the federal gas tax as a way to fund national infrastructure needs.

“We’re borrowing $16 billion a year to backfill the Highway Trust Fund,” Pete DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee, told the Washington Post in March. “Way more than half the states have raised their gas tax, and no one’s lost their election over it.”

Stauber, for his part, seems less certain that raising the gas tax is the way to move forward.

“There is absolutely no doubt that we need to invest for the future, but we cannot do it on the backs of the middle and lower class,” Stauber said. “We must come up with a long-term funding solution that keeps that in mind.”

But he also didn’t name a specific funding strategy.

No matter the solution, transportation agencies and municipalities around the country have made it clear that they need more funding to repair crumbling infrastructure and modernize transportation systems.

“Rural America matters, and these communities deserve a fair shot at transportation dollars,” Stauber added. “This means ensuring the safety and soundness of our rural roads and bridges, which many of my constituents use to get to and from work every day.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 07/03/2019 - 11:54 am.

    Ugh, don’t quote the ASCE score card, it’s such a sham. We’ve been increasing lane miles for decades in a way that vastly outpaces population growth, and they just tell us to build more; so then there’s that much more to repair twenty years from now. We’ve largely made the freeway investments that actually pay off and then some. Let’s stop. Imagine if Duluth invested $300M in its neighborhoods, businesses, citizens, and schools.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/07/2019 - 11:05 am.

      Oh, so it’s like when someone from within the Wedding Industrial Complex tells us the average cost of a wedding is $30K or some such non-sense. Go it. It’s another example of lazy journalism not properly reporting economic news.

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