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On the roads, again: lessons from the last big transportation debate

Courtesy of MnDOT
Once again, lawmakers are facing the big question of how to deal with lagging funding for roads, bridges and transit projects across the state.

Minnesota state House Reps. Rod Hamilton and Ron Erhardt know better than most the kind of passion — and resentment — transportation debates can spark in state politics.

The two representatives are the only remaining members of the “Override Six,” a group of Republican legislators who overrode Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto in 2008 to pass the first gas tax increase in Minnesota in 20 years. The move raised more than $6 billion in transportation funds for roads and bridges across the state over 10 years — but it also resulted in the six legislators facing political retribution for their votes. Erhardt, like others in the group, was challenged for his GOP endorsement that spring and lost.

He’s back now as a Democrat and serves as the outgoing chair of the House Transportation Policy Committee. Hamilton is the last surviving override vote in the House GOP caucus, which will be in the majority when the 2015 session gavels in.

Once again, lawmakers are facing the big question of how to deal with lagging funding for roads, bridges and transit projects across the state.

Like six years ago, transportation-funding advocates say there’s at least $6 billion in needs over the next decade just to maintain the state’s current transportation system. Gov. Mark Dayton has floated the idea of raising the sales tax on gas at the wholesale level to pay for improvements, but House Speaker-elect Kurt Daudt, while not closing the door on a new tax, has said such a move is not very likely to pass his new caucus.

Ron Erhardt

“I would do it again if I had any sense,” Erhardt said immediately when asked about his veto override vote six years ago.

Erhardt served on the transportation committee in the early and mid 2000s and each time supported a funding approach that dealt with roads and bridges and mass transit together — the only way to get a proposal so large to pass with metro and rural lawmakers. He thinks an approach that deals with both transit and roads is needed again this year, but the “old resentments” between rural and metro-area legislators are already starting to crop up.

Republican’s victory in the House this year was decidedly rural — 10 of 11 pickups were in rural Minnesota — and Daudt has repeatedly said his caucus is focused on “roads and bridges.” 

“Greater Minnesota always wanted roads and bridges, and so they could never understand why people wanted buses and trains because they didn’t use them out there. So they could never reach an agreement,” Erhardt said. “I don’t really understand, unless Daudt is going to work some magic to get them to agree on something, that it’s going to be very easy to get a transportation bill that amounts to anything between rural and metro. I’m not sure they are going to be able to do that.”

There’s another addition to the mix that wasn’t part of the 2008 debate, Erhardt said — bikes. Cyclists have become a major part of the Minneapolis and St. Paul transportation system, adding a third leg to the funding stool this session.

“I don’t think we ever heard about bicycle lanes in the other debates, they were strictly about roads and bridges and transit,” Erhardt said. “I don’t know how that plays into this, but that discounts some money you might put elsewhere.”

Hamilton had a different experience than Erhardt when he took the vote to override Pawlenty. He had made it clear early on that he would support the gas tax, which saved him at least some political pain when it came time to face activists at his endorsing convention (which he won). He plans to take the same open approach to his position this year, too.

Rod Hamilton

“I believe we need to invest in infrastructure in the state of Minnesota, yes, absolutely,” Hamilton said. “I also think we need to evaluate what truly the need is out there and what the funding sources and the different options are.”

But he says he sees all the right players at least willing to come to the table now. A key factor that helped in 2008 gas tax push was a strong coalition of labor union and business groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

“Conversations are being had. I’m not trying to imply anything, all I’m saying is it appears to me that all sides of the issue are talking and there aren’t any hard lines drawn in the sand,” Hamilton said. “That’s the way it is today. People are very open and willing to discuss this.”

In the end, both think something will pass this session to deal with the transportation gap. “If there’s truly a need in the state of Minnesota, the parties will come together and do what’s best,” Hamilton said.

“I’d say we are going to have something, but I don’t know what,” Erhardt added. “It might be a strange coalition that has to build [in St. Paul].”  

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/15/2014 - 11:44 am.

    Transportation

    The responsible thing to do is to make sure all people’s needs are met rather than create an “I win/you lose” scenario. That means roads, bridges, trains, bike, and walking lanes, no matter if you use all of them or not. That’s just the way democracy works.

    The other side of the responsibility coin is to make sure all of this gets paid for up front. And not just the initial construction, but also an ongoing budget to pay for maintenance. The lack of a maintenance budget is what got us into this deficit in the first place! Currently we need roughly an extra billion dollars a year to maintain the roads we have, assuming no more are added.

    Let’s raise the gas tax to cover the road side and get a metro-wide transit tax to cover trains and trails. Everyone chips in a little bit and everyone gets what they want. Everyone wins!

    That’s the way government should work.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/15/2014 - 12:24 pm.

    We’ll see.

    I hope republicans have finally realized that there is no “magic” that produces revenue. If not, we’ll see the same old “small government” magic tax and spending cut agenda and those rural voters are gonna less than they would have with democrats.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/15/2014 - 12:42 pm.

    Money and transit

    Amen to Todd Hintz.

    60% of the cost of a road is maintenance over the life of that road. Not having a permanent funding stream to finance that maintenance makes no sense, and that failure makes for barely-adequate roads, unsafe bridges, and the same lack of funding makes long-term maintenance solutions virtually impossible.

    I’ve not seen any plans or even ideas that bring light rail near enough to me for me to seriously contemplate using it, but I’d support a metro-wide transit tax anyway. The current crude oil price collapse is NOT going to last, nor will the current “bargain” gasoline prices, and when we return to the situation of scarcity, with prices to match, trains and buses are going to look more and more appealing – and economical.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/15/2014 - 01:22 pm.

    No Doubt Mr Daudt Will Begin With that Old Republican Falacy

    that there’s so much fraud and waste in the state government that all the needed road funding can just be squeezed out of the existing budget,…

    which, somehow, always ends up meaning cutting programs that assist what rural “conservatives” generally regard to be,…

    the shiftless, worthless, lazy, urban (i.e. black) poor, NONE of whom they actually have met or talked to…

    ((as opposed to the rural (white) poor whom they know a few of and who are more often seen as solid, deserving, hard working citizens who are just down on their luck)).

    That the rural areas of the state ALREADY contribute 28% less of total state revenues than urban areas but receive 6% MORE in total state services and aid,…

    COMPLETELY escapes them and their mathematically-challenged representatives.

    It probably doesn’t help that, when the A.P. picked up the same story (from MPR), and the St. Cloud Times picked up the A.P. version, those percentages were mysteriously reversed making their version of the story a bald-faced lie,…

    but in Michelle Bachmann’s former district, they LOVE those lies, don’t they?

    What the Republicans are probably REALLY trying to sell their constituents (and make them believe they deserve) is a major upgrade on all rural transportation infrastructures for free,…

    the cost being born by the urban poor.

    I only hope that they won’t get it, even though, if they don’t they’ll collectively stamp their feet and say to the state legislature, “You never listen to us,” and “It’s not fair!”

    The same things my adolescent children used to say before they grew up.

  5. Submitted by Don Evanson on 12/15/2014 - 04:02 pm.

    Thanks in large part to the influence and votes of Reps. Rod Hamilton and Ron Erhardt in overcoming Pawlenty’s veto, the state was provided with $6-billion over the next decade to wither away on wasteful light-rail and recreational-trail projects.

    In the end, Pawlenty contributed to that wasteful effort, when he traded off his support of the North Star Rail project for support of his hoped for Teddy Roosevelt-like legacy of Vermillion State Park.

    The Republican House of January needs to stand firm against such wasteful new projects, all of which require very significant operation, maintenance, and replacement subsidies, all stretching into perpetuity.

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