Minnesota’s county highway funding system supports roads to nowhere

Minnesota may well be funding the upgrading of roads with lower daily traffic counts than your alley.
CORBIS
Minnesota may well be funding the upgrading of roads with lower daily traffic counts than your alley.

A few years ago, Alaska’s congressional delegation gained notoriety for securing federal funding for “The Bridge to Nowhere,” a $398 million span connecting the town of Ketchikan (pop. 8,900) to an island with a small airport and 50 residents.

Minnesota may well be funding the construction or upgrading of more than a few roads to nowhere — or at least roads with lower daily traffic counts than your alley.

Under a constitutional amendment approved more than a half-century ago, 29 percent of the state’s highway user revenues are shared with Minnesota counties under a formula written into law at the time and tweaked a few times since.

Under that law, the counties in Greater Minnesota this year received a whopping 79 percent of the $441.4 million in state aid that was distributed. That left 21 percent for the seven metro counties, which have 53 percent of the state’s population.

“There has been a pretty significant rural bias in the distribution formula from the very beginning,” says Nacho Diaz, former transportation planning chief for the Metropolitan Council. “But it has been extremely difficult to change.”

Minnesotans love their roads. “By lane miles, we have the fifth largest road system in the nation,” says Bob DeBoer, policy director for the Citizens League. “The county state aid formula has supported that.”

Formula adjustments
Some modest formula adjustments were negotiated in 2008 by metro and outstate county commissioners, and included in the transportation funding bill enacted that year by the Legislature. Before those changes, the seven metro counties received just 18 percent of the aid designated for the so-called County State Aid Highway (CSAH) system.

Former Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson, who took part in those negotiations, says, “It was a compromise…It could have been worse.”

Those modest changes were possible only because the 2008 legislation also increased the state’s gasoline tax by 8.5 cents a gallon, creating a larger pie to divide. As Hennepin County lobbyist Bill Schreiber put it, “Nobody had to be a loser.”

“Could you justify more money going to the metro counties? Sure,” says Schreiber. “The construction costs are higher. The traffic counts are higher. The roads wear out faster.”

The system for distributing county aid dates back to 1956, when the constitutional amendment was approved. Each county was asked to designate roads for the CSAH system. Some counties designated virtually all of their roads for the system, while others were more selective. In any case, their designations were largely heeded by the state.

The distribution formula that was established gives considerable weight to the miles of CSAH roads in each county. Of the 30,552 total miles, all but 2,085 are in Greater Minnesota.

“The amount of money you receive is directly related to the aggressiveness of your county engineer in 1956,” says one legislative observer.

Polk vs. Carver counties
Arguments can be made that even lightly populated rural areas need good roads — to ensure public safety, preserve struggling communities and get agricultural commodities to market.

But consider this: Polk County, with a 2010 population of 31,600, received $7.1 million in state aid this year. Fast-growing Carver County, with a population more than twice that of Polk, received $5.3 million.

The suburban counties frequently have complained they are expected to accommodate nearly three-fourths of the metro area’s projected growth — much of it outside of the Interstate 494-694 beltway — but they are not being given adequate transportation resources to serve that growth.

“The core system of roadways in the developing areas has to be expanded …to meet the needs of the growing population,” said the Carver County Board in a letter last year to the Met Council.

The county aid system frequently has been a hot topic at the State Capitol. However, despite the mounting pressure to make the best use of scarce public resources, this system has not been scrutinized by the Legislative Auditor’s office since the mid-1980s.

“CSAH is undoubtedly an issue we should look at again,” says Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles. “The only thing holding us back are the other issues we are asked [by legislators] to look at every year.”

Steven Dornfeld, a former newspaper reporter and editor and former public affairs director of the Metropolitan Council, writes about public policy. He can be reached at sdornfeld[at]minnpost[dot]com.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Keith Nordeen on 08/04/2011 - 09:17 am.

    Nice piece of work Mr Dornfield. This again highlights the importance of distributing our resources correctly and equally in this era of diminishing revenues.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/04/2011 - 10:06 am.

    Very interesting. Based on the fact that the basis for this distribution is constitutional, yet it can be adjusted (and has been), what are the limitations on more thoroughly adjusting the distribution? It may always have to be that the dollars are distributed unevenly due to the nature of rural areas, but I can’t imagine that there’s any real practical reason they’re SO unevenly distributed. We can’t pave roads to every rural household in the state, yet we can’t leave the rural areas without maintenance. Maybe the formulation has to be reworked to figure actual rates of highway repair and replacement need. That is, a rural road with mostly car traffic is going to need less money for repair and less often as compared to a road with mainly truck traffic or an urban road with mostly car traffic. I can see that as time consuming, but if a county wants the money, they’ll simply have to put up the time and money to get actual usage rates for the roads they want included in the money pool. They might consider being more selective this time.

  3. Submitted by scott gibson on 08/04/2011 - 10:46 am.

    We who live in ‘greater Minnesota’ know full well that the metro area would prefer to ignore our quality of life, unless it impacts theirs. Government is NOT efficient. That is by design. It is not a fault, in and of itself. It exists to provide for the greater good for ALL. I am not convinced that the numbers presented are somehow unbalanced, considering the vast area of Minnesota. We pay taxes, too. The trend to curtail services for rural areas (note the congressional effort to remove subsidies for rural airports and the closing of small post offices) is a ‘let them eat cake’ mode for many of us. Had this attitude held sway decades ago there might not have been the Tennessee Valley Authority or interstate highway system.

  4. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 08/04/2011 - 10:53 am.

    as a recently retired rural county commissioner, I found your article interesting, but not complete. Most county boards (including mine) have made small adjustments to their CSAH designations over the years, based on changing traffic patterns. For example, the closing of an elevator or bulk milk plant may reduce truck traffic, while the opening of an ethanol plant or new school may increase traffic on a specific county road. My county (Meeker) made at least three CSAH “swaps” during the 14 years I held office. Also, there are state traffic count rules about which CSAH roads can be paved; not every county road is paved in rural counties, and some are paved at full county expense.

    Mr. Dornfeld also failed to mention that urban counties can petition the state for CSAH designation due to heavy traffic; rural counties are only allowed to “swap” designations within their county. Any “swap,” can be politically controversial among the county board, so probably fewer swaps are done than should be. Nevertheless, most commissioners realize that we must keep up with the times and accommodate new rural usage related to wind generators, ethanol production, commuting patterns, etc.

    It is also extremely important to the rest of the state that rural roads be well maintained. Livestock, grain & ethanol production and wind generation that benefit the entire state take place in rural areas. These operations require heavy truck transport. Every semi creates significantly more wear on a county road than a car does. Also consider that Twin Cities residents use county roads in rural areas to access cabins, state parks, national forests & resorts, just as rural residents use city highways to access Twins games & health care specialists. One must also consider that property taxes, per dollar of value, generated from farmland & forest are half (or less) of that generated from houses and a fraction of that generated from commercial or industrial property, leaving rural counties at a significant disadvantage when it comes to the ability to raise revenue.

    The transportation bill “compromise” described by my former colleague, Myra Peterson, was historic, reflecting a pragmatic “coming together” of county officials around the state for the common good. If only our legislators could create such common ground!

  5. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 08/04/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    Senator Mike Beard (R-Shakopee) and his buddies that are looking to cut Metro Transit to subsidize the collar counties building more highways, should look at these taxes that subsidize rural road building and maintenance. A system that more equitably spreads these funds around the State, reflecting traffic patterns and needs, should be considered.

    Admittedly we all benefit from a good State road system, and the rural counties should be subsidized to a degree. But aren’t these are the same counties that send legislators to St. Paul demanding that State government shrink? Why are they so quick to vote against spending in the cities yet rural spending is essential to all?

    It’s time for all of us to admit that we are interconnected and interdependent, and the reasons we have government is to provide for our common needs. We all need roadways and transit systems. We need to be willing to make the investment in the same.

    I would propose we increase the State gas tax. No one really felt the nickel a gallon increase from 2008, which is now funding bridge maintenance and transit development in the metro (though Chairman Beard would like to do away with transit, for more roads.) In an era of gasoline price fluctuations where oil companies routinely change the price $.20/gallon, an increase of a nickel on both the State and the federal level (where it hasn’t been increased in 25 years) would not be felt much, and we could fund significant improvements to our transportation system, relieve congestion, create jobs, and clean the environment with increased transit systems and some conservation.

    Of course, this will be summarily opposed by the “No New Taxes” crowd, that objects to paying any price for our government services. Logic and communal needs don’t enter into the calculation.

    P.S. I spend over $300/month for gasoline relating to my work, which I pay for myself as an independent business person (it’s 20% of my monthly work-related expenses.) Yet, I’m willing to pay this type of user tax for less congestion and a safer and more efficient transportation system.

  6. Submitted by Richard O on 08/04/2011 - 12:43 pm.

    Eye-opening. Thank you, Mr.Dornfeld.

  7. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 08/04/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    Here in the metro, light rail sucks up good money that should be used on roads. Roads benefit everybody. You don’t have to drive on every roadway to benefit from it – there are no stepladders or peaches transported on light rail.

  8. Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 08/04/2011 - 04:45 pm.

    Ms Wilde and Mr. Brausen both make sense. Rural areas have some unique issues. So does the metro. We definitively are all “interconnected.” This distribution, like the federal airport subsidies, and many others should be continually monitored and reviewed by reasonable, rational people who can look at what makes sense for the entire state (or country). Increasing taxes, or fees, or some other revenue source, should never be off the table. I don’t know where we could find these rational, reasonable people. Certainly not in our current state legislature.

  9. Submitted by Carol Flynn on 08/04/2011 - 09:32 pm.

    And now, Mr. Dornfeld, please research the portion of our roads paid for with property taxes. The myth still exists that our roads are paid for with the gas tax.

  10. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 08/05/2011 - 08:23 am.

    Could it be that a large portion of the pressure for change from the metro area originates from growth in that area being more sprawling-oriented than the sprawlers are willing to pay for?

  11. Submitted by Brian Elfert on 08/05/2011 - 08:47 am.

    Gas taxes are not a myth. They pay for state highways and CSAH roads. Property taxes only pay for some county and most local roads.

    The state (not including local and county) spends around $1 billion a year on road construction. In some recent years the state has spent well in excess of $1 billion with stimulus and some extra money form the 2008 transportation.

    The amount spent on light rail construction so far (About $1 billion) would maybe fund one year’s worth of road construction. (The Central corridor hasn’t spent much of its funds yet.)

  12. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 08/05/2011 - 08:48 am.

    I also wonder what percentage of federal highway dollars are spent within the Twin Cities as compared to the rural counties. Seems that large chunks have just been expended on the 35W/62 and 35E/694 projects as well as the 169/494 project. Each of those alone are more than the entire CSAH fund.

  13. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/05/2011 - 09:52 am.

    Most people complaining about light rail costs don’t bother to know what light rail does. The average weekday ridership is almost 25,000 rides (that’s PER DAY). Even if you assume that those riders would have carpooled at an average rate of 2 people per vehicle (yeah, right), that’s over 12000 car trips removed PER DAY, or 6000 each way. Reducing the car load on the highways reduces the frequency of the need for repairs for at least two reasons: 1. Fewer cars simply means less wear; and 2. Less congestion reduces the wear on roads, particularly when construction diverts traffic and concentrates traffic on fewer roads. Reducing the car load on highways also reduces the individual costs for travelling Minnesota’s urban road systems because you’re wasting less gas on sitting in traffic and reducing the cost of repairs to your car due to damaged roads (because there’s less wear on the roads due to less traffic). It also reduces your risk of an accident because you’re less likely to be hotheaded because the traffic isn’t as bad, and there are simply fewer cars to run into even if you can’t control your road rage. Does this all add up to an overall savings? I don’t know; there are too many subtle variables. But I can tell you that if more people adopted mass transit, it WOULD save money for both individuals and the public. Individuals’ refusal to reduce their mileage by using mass transit costs them more. And that’s simply too bad. Don’t be hatin’ on light rail because you are too stubborn to take advantage of it.

  14. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/05/2011 - 09:55 am.

    I erred in the lightrail ridership. 25000 is an old number. It’s more like 33,500 daily ridership. Even better.

  15. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/05/2011 - 03:27 pm.

    “You don’t have to drive on every roadway to benefit from it”

    Sure. Just like you don’t have to ride on the light rail to benefit from it, as Rachel Kahler describes, above.

    From the article, this paragraph stood out, for me:
    “The suburban counties frequently have complained they are expected to accommodate nearly three-fourths of the metro area’s projected growth — much of it outside of the Interstate 494-694 beltway — but they are not being given adequate transportation resources to serve that growth.”

    Perhaps living in a low-density area far from cities isn’t as cheap as its purported to be.

  16. Submitted by William Pappas on 08/06/2011 - 07:23 am.

    Right you are, Tim Brausen, that many of those budget hawks and debt ceiling fanatics are the same ones looking for the biggest earmarks and subsidies. Look no further than Bachmann’s efforts to build the outrageously expensive and unnecessarily large St. Croix River Crossing. A 700 million dollar infrastructure project should have a major impact on a critical part of Minnesota’s transportation system. The Mega Bridge near Stillwater doesn’t meet that test as anyone who drives across it and into Wisconsin knows. The Bridge to Nowhere will connect to the Highway to Nowhere (Wisconsin Hw 64) that is nearly empty even on holiday commuting nights. Minnesota could save nearly 200 million dollars alone by building a more appropriate crossing while still satisfying all of their transportation objectives. Unfortunately the Mayor of Stillwater and Bachmann are crazy for a “signature” crossing over the St. Croix. Square that with Bachmann’s balanced budget mania.

  17. Submitted by Dave Seitz on 08/06/2011 - 06:18 pm.

    Since so many folks are on board with Lightrail and the Train System lets do this. ALL OF THE FUNDS that are raised for roads go towards roads. The states road system with money coming in from taxes, fees, fines, ect stays in that system. Now lets make that lightrail and other train systems self supporting. It is odd that the small % of the population in this state who do ride Public Transit BITCH PISS AND MOAN over any fare increase. Likewise the Bus system that is is not self supporting and the cries that any fare increase will reduce ridership. The only subsidy that should be given to bus riders is a road system bought and paid for by the folks they despise. So if you cannot get your organic foods to your local farmers market, you didn’t see a need for those roads in the first place.

  18. Submitted by Carol Flynn on 08/07/2011 - 09:54 am.

    #17: ALL OF THE FUNDS raised for roads GO TO ROADS!!! Unfortunately, an outdated constitutional requirement makes it so.

  19. Submitted by Dave Seitz on 08/07/2011 - 05:58 pm.

    #18 So let me get this right you are upset that funding for roads comes from roads. So the funding from mass transit comes from where? Don’t even try and tell me it is self sustaining because it is not. Percentage wise dear please let me know how much funding is need just to keep public transit solvent. Since it is such a great system for you lets make it a law each system must be self sustaining. Get back to me on how much subsidy goes to AMTRACK alone.

  20. Submitted by Julie Dulka on 08/07/2011 - 07:59 pm.

    Yes we have less population in Greater MN, but our road don’t lead to no where. I am an EMT on a volunteer service, those roads that you claim go no where are the roads I need to get to my patients and then to get them to the hospital ER. The average time it takes to get to a patient is 10-15 minutes and then we have to get them to the hospital and that is another 20-30 minutes on those roads that go no where, in the metro area it’s approximately 5-10 minutes. We have a lower population and in most cases we recieve alot less funds from the state, we have less people to pay property taxes and such, but we still have to provide the same services that are needed in the metro area. We have less big businesses, so jobs are very scarce, again less big business taxes being paid. I live in one of the smalles counties in MN, it is a struggle to provide services that the metro people take for granted. Fire, Ambulance and Rescue Squads are 99% volunteer and if it weren’t for us few who volunteer, there would be no services like that for our county. Our population is getting older, there are very little jobs up here to make a good living with so our young people go to the metro areas to make a living. This older population depends on the volunteer services to help meet thier medical needs. This area here depends on our roads to no where. It is not uncommon to drive 100-200 miles a day getting back and forth to work, running our earends, getting to school, watching our kids in sports and school activities. Our college kids usually have to go to school atleast 50-150 miles from home. So, as you see our roads do go somewhere and are greatly needed and Greater Minnestoa is usually on the bottom of the state funding list. But we still have schools to support, Social Services to provide, Law Enforcement to fund and it is getting more difficult each year. I get upset when metro people think that just because our population is smaller, we don’t provide what is provided in the metro area and we don’t need funding like the metro area does. Well we do and sometimes we need it more then the metro areas. In all honesty this is the first time I have ever posted a comment to anything I have read, you really have no clue about the way of life and struggles we have in Greater MN, so please don’t single us out and say we don’t need funding. Maybe the metro area needs to take lessons from us on how to make something from nothing and make it work.

  21. Submitted by Julie Dulka on 08/07/2011 - 08:10 pm.

    I forgot to mention that public transportation is almost non-existent in Greater Minnesota we have to provide our own transportation. Those of you who can save money on public transportation have no idea how lucky you are.

  22. Submitted by Stephanie Buss on 08/25/2011 - 09:37 am.

    So the metro area entails 6.8% of the CSAH system while utilizing 21% of the state dedicated funds. What is the problem here?

    Also, I assume the author conveniently forgot to include other funding sources for the construction of the CSAH system. I wonder what the whole picture would look like after the allocation of federal gas tax revenues are included in the comparison?

    Finally, I wonder what local effort is needed to supplement governmental aids by local property taxes in each area? My bets are on the rural areas supplementing the state and federal funds with a higher percentage of their local levies.

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