Lt. Gov. Tina Smith used a notoriously traffic-snarled section of Interstate 494 in Bloomington to announce $32 million in grants for 11 road projects, while also pushing for a big transportation package during the upcoming legislative session.
“These are great projects, but they don’t come close to meeting our need for a sustainable, comprehensive solution to Minnesota’s transportation challenges,” said Smith, who was joined by Gene Winstead, the Republican mayor of Bloomington and other state and local officials at an afternoon news conference.
The state grants provided warm feelings on a frigid afternoon, but the political realities of getting to a major transportation deal at the Legislature during an election year are complicated. Gov. Mark Dayton, the DFL-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House all say they want a significant package to fund roads and bridges and at least some transit, but that is where the consensus ends.
Last year, Dayton proposed $11 billion to fix the state’s most decrepit roads and bridges over the next decade with a 6.5 percent gross receipts tax on gasoline, plus a half-cent sales tax increase in the metro area for transit. The DFL Senate passed a measure with similar elements.
But House Republicans balked at a gas tax and instead passed a plan to repurpose $3 billion from existing sales taxes on auto parts and leased and rental cars into a fund that would pay for improvements for roads and bridges, small-city and suburban roads, bus service in outstate Minnesota and metro-area capital improvements.
The two sides could not come to an agreement, and Republicans have been using the DFL gas tax proposal to hammer Democrats ever since. The tax proposal has been particularly difficult to sell as the state is already sitting on a $1.2 billion budget surplus.
Late last year, Dayton said a gas tax is unlikely given the current political atmosphere, which Smith reiterated in an interview after the news conference: “The governor acknowledged the reality that Republicans in the House aren’t going to support a gas tax,” she said.
Smith said she’s had talks with legislators of both parties to discuss potential compromise. She said any plan must be long-term and provide dedicated funding to prevent future Legislatures from raiding the money in case of recession. And it must also include adequate spending for transit, Smith said.
The 11 projects announced Tuesday — five in the metro and six outstate — are tied to economic development and seek to leverage state money to win matching federal, local and private dollars. The $32 million in state money will become $100 million when other sources are added. While the state has granted $100 million in Transportation and Economic Development awards the past decade, that has led to $339 million in overall transportation spending with the other funding sources.
In addition to the I-494 project, other grant winners include an expansion of Hwy. 41 in Chaska and the Hwy. 169-41 interchange in Scott County.
As traffic threatened to drown out the speakers and a train passed behind them, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, emphasized the link between economic growth and transportation: “The noise you hear is the noise of commerce, and we like that noise,” she said. “And we want that noise to continue.”