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Two for the roads: comparing the parties’ transportation funding plans

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis: “I think we have a really responsible approach.”

One plan raises $6 billion over the next decade and has been criticized as a burden on the pocketbook of Minnesota families. Another plan raises $0 has been called “pure fantasy.”

Welcome to the 2015 Minnesota transportation debate.

The parameters of what could be an ugly fight at the Legislature over how to fix the state’s dilapidated transportation system are now set, after Democrats in control of the Senate released their transportation package on Monday. The House Republican majority released their plan last week, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has been talking about the top-line details of his transportation package since last fall’s election.

The last time Minnesota lawmakers raised revenue for transportation was in 2008, and state officials say those funds are falling short of current needs. But finding agreement could be tough this year. The parties are far apart on how to solve the problem — and how big the problem is.

“I say $6 billion and they say nothing?” a frustrated Dayton said last week during the press conference at which he made his “pure fantasy” remark about Republicans’ proposal. “This is not a beginning of a sensible conversation.”

Here’s an overview of the major plans, and how policymakers think the 2015 transportation debate will play out:

Comparing DFL and GOP transportation bills
The transportation plans proposed by Senate Democrats and House Republicans differ widely in amount and duration of funding and sources for that funding.
Senate DemocratsHouse Republicans
Amount of funding
  • $800M in 2016
  • $1.1B annually starting in 2017
  • $750M over four years
Source of funding
  • New 6.5% wholesale gas tax ($580M/yr)
  • Vehicle registration fee increase($125M/yr)
  • Bonding for local bridge/road repair($567M)
  • Metro-area sales tax increase for transit projects ($251M/yr)
  • Motor vehicle lease tax increase for Greater MN transit ($32M/yr)
  • MnDOT efficiencies (Unspecified amount)
  • State budget surplus ($200M)
  • Trunk Highway Fund ($223M in 2016–17, $282M in 2018–19)
    Dedicates 90% of "unreserved balance" of the fund
  • MnDOT efficiences ($65M)

Democrats go big

Democrats at the Capitol and transportation advocacy groups are presenting a (mostly) united front on how to tackle what the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) estimates is a $6 billion funding shortfall for transportation over the next 10 years.

Dayton was the first to detail the broad outlines of his plan to maintain the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. His proposal: apply a 6.5 percent sales tax to gasoline at the wholesale level — that’s on top of the state’s current gas tax at the pump — and increase the license tab fees that car owners pay every year. The plan also includes a sales tax increase in the metro area for transit projects. The plan would raise $5.8 billion over the next decade.

Dayton’s big-ticket items mostly align with the plan released this week by Senate Democrats and Move MN, a coalition of transportation funding advocates. “I think we have a really responsible approach,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee. “Failure to act costs money; it’s just whether you are going to pay out of your back pocket or pay out of your front pocket and do a proactive investment.”

Senators want a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for metro-area transit projects, and they want that portion to help cover the state’s remaining costs on the Southwest light rail line. The state owes about $120 million on the project, which is embroiled in a legal battle over its current route.

There’s one fairly big caveat, however: Democrats’ plan may require some recalculations if gas prices stay low. The sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level would bring in different revenues depending on prices. At $2 per gallon gas prices, for instance, it would increase costs by about 12 cents, Dayton said. At $4 per gallon gas, prices would go up more than a quarter per gallon. Dayton’s $5.8 billion figure was calculated based on gas prices at $3.25, and if prices continue to stay low, the administration would have to fill in some revenue gaps.

“If it stays at $2.25 a gallon for the next couple of years, then that revenue is going to be less,” Dayton said.  “If we find in two years that the price is still there, we’ll have a lot of other benefits from that, and we’ll have to deal with our revenue projection.”

Republicans offer short-term plan

House Republicans have offered what they admit is only a short-term proposal to address the state’s transportation needs.

They would pump $750 million into roads and bridges over the next four years, $200 million of which would come from the state’s $1 billion budget surplus. Republicans are also proposing to direct MnDOT to find $65 million in “savings” and “efficiencies” in their budget to put into things like pothole repair.

Their plan would also call on MnDOT to allocate 90 percent of the unreserved balance in the Trunk Highway Fund to roadwork for four years. Those dollars, which gather when projects come in under bid, would open up $223 million for road and bridge spending in 2016 and 2017 and another $282 million in 2018 and 2019.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans didn’t include any money for mass transit projects in their plan —  and they are unlikely to do so. The party spent the summer and fall telling voters that outstate roads and bridges were neglected to invest in things like light rail lines in the metro.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, said Republicans’ plan reflected the need for more time to put together a comprehensive transportation-funding plan. “What we need to do is just reinvest in our infrastructure, in our roads and bridges,” Kelly said. “What we can do without raising taxes is fund transportation to the tune of $750 million.”

Can they reach a deal?

Comparing his plan to Republicans transportation package, Dayton seemed pessimistic about the chances of something passing this session. “[Their plan is] not a solution. It’s not a short-term solution. It’s not a long-term solution,” Dayton said. “To me it demonstrates that they don’t understand the problem, and they don’t have any serious interest in finding a solution.”

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt has refused to slam the door on raising new revenue for transportation, but he says it’s unlikely Republicans will vote for a tax increase.

He released a statement Friday saying he was disappointed in Dayton’s remarks on the transportation debate, but promised to keep working with Democrats this session to find common ground. “Minnesotans elected a divided government with the expectation that we’d work together to move our state forward,” Daudt said.

Dibble gave a simple assessment when asked about the chance of getting Republican support for a proposal that includes tax increases: “That will be a problem.”

Comments (37)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 01/13/2015 - 10:38 am.


    I’d say both are a starting point for each side and they likely already know they each will have to bend some as they work together to finalize the plan and meet somewhere in between. I’ve only seen one side be disrespectful about the issue though and it isn’t appreciated.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/13/2015 - 03:56 pm.

      If Our “Conservative” Friends Wish to be Taken Seriously

      they need to do sufficient homework to propose solutions to our transportation problems that are actually based in mathematics,…

      in accurately and honestly figuring the cost of the needs.

      in calculating tax revenues necessary to meet those needs, both in metro and rural areas,…

      and in proposing how the necessary revenues might be achieved.

      Their current plan bears no resemblance to such an approach.

      To point out that the the plan being proposed by the “conservative” side is completely out of touch with reality,…

      and reflects an approach that has been tried and shown not to work over the past three decades or more,…

      is not disrespectful.

      I would think telling our “conservative” friends the truth,

      no matter how uncomfortable it makes them,

      no matter how much they’d rather not face it,

      demonstrates faith in their basic intelligence and ability to comprehend reality,…

      and therefore represents a greater level of respect for them and for the people of Minnesota

      than allowing folks to take seriously the perspectives of those who wish to continue to dwell in a fog of unreality,…

      even if it hurts the feelings of those who prefer that fog to hear their perspective accurately and factually described.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/13/2015 - 10:54 am.

    “…to fix the state’s dilapidated transportation system”

    The difference is, the republican plan does that. The democrats include mass transit in their plan which does not “fix the state’s dilapidated transportation system” at all.

    Government’s constitutional role in transportation is related to the commerce clause. Spending should be limited to those roads, bridges and thoroughfares that support commerce. There is no role for government to provide transportation for individuals, which means mass transit that is built is out of the kindness of the taxpayers’ hearts and is not necessary.

    The starting point in negotiations should be for the democrats to remove their mass transit spending plans.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/13/2015 - 11:49 am.

      Supporting Commerce

      The interstate highways support much more than commercial traffic. There are a lot of personal trips people make that have nothing to do with commerce, such as commuting to and from work and for purely social activates. We don’t need 4 lanes each direction between Minneapolis and St. Paul for commerce, and reducing lane miles will greatly lower my taxes that pay for the extra pavement.

      What say you, Mr. Tester? Shall we ban Twins fans from going to the game on 394?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/13/2015 - 12:01 pm.

        The justification for the highway system

        Is interstate commerce. The fact that it’s not restricted to the transport of goods and can be used by personal cars is a benefit to the citizens but is not why the government was constitutionally justified in building it.

        Mass transit is only designed to transport people. That is not the role of government-supported transportation.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/13/2015 - 01:21 pm.

          So, the government should serve products, not people? I think it’s the other way…

          Either way, most of the interstate highway system was built during the Cold War, with an emphasis on it’s use as an arterial transfer of troops and military materiel in the event of another global war.

          • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/13/2015 - 03:29 pm.


            is serving people. The next tinme you go to the grocery store, you’ll see evidence of it. Those boxes of cereal didn’t arrive via light rail.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/13/2015 - 03:37 pm.

              No, but the people buying the cereal (in your hypothetical), did.

              • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/13/2015 - 06:59 pm.

                and so did the people

                arriving by car. Did the government provide those cars? Should the government provide those cars?

                • Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/13/2015 - 09:23 pm.


                  And ASAP wouldn’t be too soon! They would run better and longer, cost $7,000 to $12,000 less, and be available in any color you wanted, as long as it was green (or whatever hue you chose on the MNCar website, funded, in part, by the Legacy Fund and the “public/private partnerships” that included Ford, Toyota, Subaru, Chrysler, Volkswagen, GM, BMW, et all anxious to keep doing business in Minnesota, and, of course, custom painted by the artist of your choice, also associated with the above).

                  It’s a no-brainer.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/13/2015 - 02:02 pm.


          Not even close. Federal highway construction was originally justified as coming under the power of Congress to administer the Post Office (hence the term “Post Roads”). Interstate highways were, at least in theory, justified as a national defense measure (hence the official moniker “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”).

          I suggest you do a little more research into the constitutional commerce clause, and the reaches of that provision. To give you the short answer, the Supreme Court has held that it covers virtually all economic activity except the administration of state and local government. Furthermore, it is a limitation on the powers of the federal government. State governments are not bound by the limitation of that clause.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/16/2015 - 11:49 am.

          Oh wow.

          So, if I take a bus to work, it’s not commerce? But if I drive to work it is? “Oh, no, boss. Don’t pay me. I took the bus today. I’m not working. Because I didn’t drive today, no commerce is happening. In fact, I should be paying YOU because you funded my personal travel to do some activity that is entirely personal and not commerce. What’s that you say, boss? Oh, no, boss. Don’t worry about how much I paid for other people’s personal travel on the train or bus today. I did it out of the goodness of my heart so that people can just travel for no reason whatsoever.”

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/13/2015 - 11:54 am.

      Your suggestion is essentially that the Democrats’ starting point should be total capitulation to a Republican plan though. I’d rather the DFL not negotiate with the MNGOP like Barack Obama negotiated with Congressional Republicans between 09 and 15.

      • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 01/13/2015 - 01:28 pm.


        “I’d rather the DFL not negotiate with the MNGOP like Barack Obama negotiated with Congressional Republicans between 09 and 15.”

        And then you’d blame republicans for not negotiating and getting things done as usual. Seen it happen many times already.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/13/2015 - 03:18 pm.

          Read it more carefully. I’m not saying I don’t want the DFL to negotiate- I’m saying that I do. Just not by giving away the keys to the store like Obama did, by assuming that the Repubs were ever interested in working with him in the first place, which is why we got Bob Dole’s healthcare plan from 1996, and not a better system in which healthcare is uncoupled from employers altogether. But I digress. I’m pro-compromise, I’m pro-negotiation, and if we have divided government where one party controls 2/3rd of the government, and the other controls the other 1/3rd, then there should be at least some bipartisan efforts at comity and negotiation. I’ll still fight and argue for what I think is right, however.

    • Submitted by Joe Erjavec on 01/13/2015 - 02:21 pm.

      Light rail supports commerce

      I take the light rail to go to work (earning money for my family…commerce), go to concerts (commerce), and sometimes shop (ahem…more commerce).

    • Submitted by Frank Jaskulke on 01/13/2015 - 09:35 pm.

      Commerce clause is interstate….


      The commerce clause is part of the federal constitution and regulates interstate commerce. As in activity that crosses state borders. It does not prevent a state government from spending money on buses, trains, bike lanes or other activities.

      The Minnesota state constiution does have many sections covering transport ion spending. They are written mostly in the positive sense – what government can or shall do. They do not preclude the state from spending money on things bike lanes.

  3. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/13/2015 - 11:37 am.

    compared to last years plan?

    Is the senate plan different from, or the same as, last year’s proposal?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/13/2015 - 04:49 pm.

      Pretty much…

      It may have some different details, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same basic plan the senate passed last year. As I understand it, the democrats in the house we’re reluctant to pass it for fear of losing control of the house as punishment for voting for the tax increase.

  4. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/13/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    There’s nothing reasonable about more roads

    That’s what got us into this deep hole. Roads that don’t earn their keep, and that subsidize sprawl. We’re broke trying to maintain the sprawl-subsidizing infrastructure we have, and both parties think we need to build more of the same? An unreasonable approach, whether or not there’s a reasonable way to pay for it.

    • Submitted by Peter Doughty on 01/15/2015 - 08:02 am.

      nothing reasonable

      Hear hear, Mr. Steele!
      Seeing as how so many Democrats, including the governor, lined up in support of mega-monstrosities (Vikings stadium, St. Croix bridge), I’m not at all inclined to be confident of their proposal. But I’m not expecting any sense on this from Republicans, either.
      For those readers willing to take a hard look at the many costs of the more-of-the-same approach to roads, I highly recommend Brainerd-based StrongTowns.

  5. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/13/2015 - 12:45 pm.

    More Pawlenty-style kicking the can down the road from republicans? Using one-time surpluses and rainy day funds instead of actually trying to find dedicated funding? What a surprise. They’d rather pander to their ‘no taxes ever!’ base than do anything responsible for fear of showing weakness through compromise. I’m also extremely sick of the way they won’t even let the metro tax itself for transit. If they’re so worried about rural taxpayers paying for transit (ha ha ha ha HA HA HA HA, learn some math, though) they could just let the metro pay for it ourselves. But no, that’s not acceptable either. They won’t even let the willing tax themselves for something they need. And they have the gall to make quips about liberals being a nanny state.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/13/2015 - 04:38 pm.

      Nail On Head Award (so far)

      Well said, Wayne.

      The “no taxes ever!” mantra of its chanters is, to put it mildly, getting a little old after 40+ years of proof that the only thing it’s good for is getting votes for people that ride it to power, implement as much tax cutting or blocking as possible (to help people that don’t need more money get more money) before getting removed from power because, for SOME reason, deficits have exploded, economies have cratered, many of their constituents have lost their jobs, their health insurance, life savings, homes, and belief in the idea that government can do ANYthing, or that they or their kids will ever be able to achieve that thing called “the American dream.”

      To me it’s kind of like having Bill Murray play Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man character (instead of the one he played) in Groundhog’s Day: Every morning the alarm goes off, he wakes up and starts saying, “I can drive,” and “Yeah” (only), to everyone all day long until he goes to sleep, wakes up, and does it all over again. Unfortunately, in the version of the movie we seem to be trapped in having to watch, he hasn’t snapped out of it yet and the movie just won’t end.

      Regarding this latest scene, no matter how you slice it (constitutionally, apples to orange apples, Eisenhower Blvd. & Post Roads building and repair, etc.) the “no taxes ever!” crowd plan is SO absurd I’m amazed Kurt Daubt & company had the nerve to “roll it out” as one of their “Top of the Agenda Solutions for the Benefit of All Minnesotans.”

      Address a multi-billion dollar transportation infrastructure need by making a one-time 200 million dollar payment (from the general fund, no less) and “getting the rest” (550 million) from the department you’re giving the 200 million to?

      Hello?…. Anyone home?…. Hello?

      I’m not sure, but isn’t that a lot like you or me reporting back to the boss that it will cost right around $6,000 to do what needs to be done in the area we’re in charge of and the boss saying, “No it won’t. We need to keep costs down, so it’ll only cost $750. And here’s how we’ll do it. We’ll give you $200 and you cover the rest out of your budget. Now get outta here and make it work! Give everybody a buzz cut if you have to. And by the way, do a good job or it’ll wind up costing our clients a lot more than it would if we raised our prices. And we can’t have either of those things, can we”?

      “Yeah… I can drive.”

  6. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 01/13/2015 - 12:50 pm.

    strip out mass transit…

    I think the SW light rail line is a boondoggle. It’s costs will never be justified. None of the mass transit lines so far have been anywhere near cost effective. Now many people ride that train to Big Lake? The Dems are in love with that stuff. The Republicans are talking apples. The Dems are talking apples and oranges and who knows what else when the real problem is strictly apples. Maybe the two sides can agree on apples for now.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/13/2015 - 02:41 pm.

      As a transit advocate, I completely agree that the SW line is a mess, but that doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are plenty of really good transit investments we could make that would be worthwhile. I think the biggest insult is that the metro has to ASK PERMISSION to tax itself for transit (and can’t get that permission). We’re not asking for rural towns to pay for our trains and buses, we can cover it. But they want to extract our money for their roads and refuse to let us finance our own infrastructure needs. It’s petty and almost sadistic.

      • Submitted by David Greene on 01/15/2015 - 12:55 am.


        SWLRT is not a mess. It is one of the most important transportation projects in the state. The “mess” is the usual politics around big capital investments. Same thing happened on Hiawatha and Central, not to mention the current Capitol wranglings.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/13/2015 - 01:25 pm.

    Soooooo this what rural voters will get from republicans…

    Zero dollars and more crumbling roads and bridges.

  8. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 01/13/2015 - 02:58 pm.

    Will it all look like massive waste…

    I know some folks will consider this pie-in-the-sky silliness, but I think the legislature should consider both road infrastructure AND transit oriented investments with an eye to driverless transportation. The reality of driverless cars, trucks, etc. is probably closer than we think, and with it will come enormous changes in the way we might think about roads and transport (both people and stuff). My opinion is that the change will be akin to what we saw in the 1840s with railroads and again in the 1920s with cars. I think we’ll look back at this decade as a real head slapper in 20 years.

    By the way, it would be great to have Eric Black write an article about the commerce clause of the constitution. I’d never really thought about governments role in ensuring transportation infrastructure, so seems like a worthy thing to investigate and shed a little light on.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 01/15/2015 - 12:53 am.

      Driverless cars will solve exactly zero of our major transportation problems, which are almost all in the “build and maintain infrastructure” category. A single-occupant vehicle takes the same space on the road no matter who or what is driving it.

  9. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 01/13/2015 - 03:03 pm.


    The Republican plan is the equivalent of trying to buy a house with your income tax refund check. Fun thought-poor long-term success.

    Minnesota is a big state and folks want the opportunity to travel statewide without crashing through bridges or letting potholes ruin their cars. These kind of repairs cost money. The longer they are avoided the more money they cost.

    Any plans that reduce the traffic on crowded metro roads improve the experience of drivers and delay the time when even more roads will need to be built. There are 200+ kids born in this state every day they, their school buses, the trucks that bring their food, and their parents who work hard to support them all need roads, bridges, and alternatives to get around. Pay now or pay even more later!

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 01/13/2015 - 09:19 pm.

    You’re forgetting

    The GOP ran on turning rural Minnesota into victims of the Twin Cities and the surrounding metro area. I suspect the newly elected rural representatives will have to offer more than just talking points to get re-elected on 2016.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/14/2015 - 08:56 am.

      Right, they’ll have to point at how they wrecked the cities’ infrastructure and economy so everyone outstate can get some schadenfreude and call it a day. Accomplishing things is so last century. This one’s all about tearing them down out of jealousy and spite.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2015 - 01:38 pm.

        The Circle Game

        If you can’t win, make sure someone else loses. Then, you can go back to the voters and kvetch about how you never get what YOU want. Get re-elected, and repeat the process.

        It’s easier than coming up with workable solutions.

  11. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 01/16/2015 - 02:48 pm.

    There’s a lot of “sound and fury” here, folks.

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