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Need for more state transportation funding grows, but not the political will

Funding for new projects has been hard to come by, with most of the focus being placed on low-cost, high-benefit improvements that improve safety and remove bottlenecks.

“Minnesota had a chance to make a decisive move on transportation but decided not to take it,” said Transit for Livable Communities’s Barb Thoman.

On Thursday, transportation advocates will troop to the state Capitol to rally support for legislation that would provide a massive infusion of tax dollars for roads, bridges and transit.

“We need to get these bills passed out of committee!” Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) told its supporters in an email blast. “This is our chance to make it clear to legislators that Minnesotans want, and urgently need, more transportation options.”

However, the group and its allies will encounter some major political roadblocks:

  • DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of the Legislature’s DFL majority, particularly in the House, are not enthused about the idea of raising taxes this year. Not coincidentally, Dayton and members of the House are up for election this fall.

  • Members of the Legislature’s Republican minority are strongly opposed to any more tax increases, saying the DFL went overboard last session when they jacked up taxes by $2.1 billion. (DFLers are now rushing to roll back some of these increases.)

  • The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which provided critical support when taxes were last raised for transportation, is sitting on the sidelines this year. “A lot of businesses are still grappling with the tax increases they saw last year,” says Bentley Graves, a transportation policy specialist for the chamber.

  • In addition, there’s the fact that the state is now projecting a $1.2 billion budget surplus for the current biennium. While none of this general-fund money will go for roads and bridges, it never looks good to be raising taxes when you have a surplus.

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This has to be discouraging for transportation advocates, who were publicly disappointed last session by the failure of the Legislature’s new DFL majority to deliver for them.

“Minnesota had a chance to make a decisive move on transportation but decided not to take it,” said TLC’s Barb Thoman at the close of the last session. “Instead of moving sensibly to expand our transit system, we’re stalled. No increase in local bus, minimal progress on rail. This is a huge disappointment…”

Seeking public support

Still, they hope to build public support for their funding bill, introduced by Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, Minneapolis DFLers who chair the transportation committees in their respective bodies.

It would generate $360 million annually for roads and bridges through a new 5-percent sales tax on motor fuel at the wholesale level and another $335 million for transit through an additional three-quarter-cent sales tax in the metro area (boosting the current transit sales tax to a full one cent per dollar).

Hornstein acknowledges that the measure faces an uphill battle, but says: “We’re going to have a hearing in my committee and we’ll see what happens after that. This is an issue of concern to many people in the Legislature and around the state. There are definitely pent-up needs for roads and bridges and transit.”

The state’s transportation needs have been well documented. Minnesota has the nation’s fifth-largest highway system, with more than 140,000 miles of state, county and local roads, and more than 20,000 bridges. It’s an aging system that is costly just to maintain. Fifty percent of the state’s highway pavements are more than 50 years old, and 40 percent of its bridges are more than 40 years old.

Funding for new projects has been hard to come by, with most of the focus being placed on low-cost, high-benefit improvements that improve safety and remove bottlenecks.

Meanwhile, transit advocates complain that the Twin Cities lacks adequate, reliable sources of funding to expand the bus system, continue building out the region’s system of rail and bus transitways, and keep pace with transit improvements in Denver, Dallas, Portland and other major metro areas.

The last major increase in transportation funding came in 2008, when lawmakers overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The measure included an 8.5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax, an adjustment to auto license fees and authority for the seven metro counties to levy a quarter-cent sales tax for transit.

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However, transportation advocates say the funding systems for both highways and transit are falling far short of Minnesota’s needs, and that the gap is likely to widen. The state’s 28.5-cent- a-gallon gasoline tax – the principal revenue source for roads and bridges – is being eroded by the growth in the number of fuel-efficient vehicles.

Looking out over the next 20 years, a state advisory panel has estimated that revenues will fall $21 billion short of what is needed to maintain the performance level of the existing transportation system, and more than $50 billion short of what is needed to build an “economically competitive, world-class system.”

Dayton raised expectations last fall when he directed Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle and Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh to hit the road and attempt to build support for increased public investment in roads, bridges and transit.

Dayton backs away

Since then, however, Dayton seems to have backed away from the idea. Matt Swenson, Dayton’s press secretary, said last week the governor “still thinks there is a significant need for additional transportation funding and he thinks most Minnesotans would agree. The problem, as the governor has said before, is that most people don’t want to help pay for it.”

Swenson said Dayton wants to continue trying to build public support for the idea and hopes people will be impressed by the progress being made by the state’s “Corridors of Commerce” initiative, which is providing $300 million for 10 road improvement projects around the state.

“The governor thinks we will have a really good case if he comes back in 2015 with a comprehensive transportation package that makes investments in both highways and transit,” Swenson said.

Added enthusiasm for transit also could be generated by the June 14 opening of the $952-million Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line. The 11-mile project  – now called the Green Line – will link downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis, and connect with the existing Hiawatha (Blue) LRT line and Northstar commuter rail line.

Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, is not giving up hope for action this session.

“It’s the same old problem that transportation has faced for many, many years,” Donahoe says. Whether it’s an election year or an off year, whether the state has a surplus or a deficit, politicians say “this is not the right time to raise taxes. It’s never the right time.

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“I think what the governor has been saying all along is that if there is enough support and if the Legislature were to send him a bill, he would be supportive,” she added.

Toward that end, Donahoe’s group has helped build Move MN, a coalition of more than 150 transportation, business, labor, governmental, environmental and other groups to press for legislative action.

During a recent appearance on Minnesota Public Radio, Dibble said the public needs to weigh in to make transportation funding a priority this session.

“It’s really up to the people of Minnesota to create the political climate … by engaging in this process – calling their legislators, calling the governor, showing up at town hall meetings, emailing, doing all of that – to say that this is really important to us,” Dibble said.  “This needs to happen sooner rather than later.”

And Donahoe believes the people will speak out very soon.  “People are going to be confronted very directly and very painfully by a lot of potholes this spring – and I think their legislators are going to hear about it.”