Greater Minnesota gets far more money for roads and bridges than its residents pay in taxes for those projects, a new Star Tribune analysis of transportation funding has found.
The review found that metro and greater Minnesota taxpayers each provide about half the money for Minnesota’s roads and bridges, but greater Minnesota gets twice as much back in projects.
Even when state money for transit is factored in, greater Minnesota receives 22 percent more state transportation money than the metro, according to four years of transportation funding data.
Republican Senate leaders on Monday are planning to review their 10-year transportation funding plan, which is expected to reignite the debate about how transportation money is collected and where it is spent.
“When you’re dealing with chronic insufficiency, these fights get exacerbated,” DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said in an interview last week.
The division of state transportation dollars is a flash point in the broader debate in the Legislature about the Southwest light rail project and public transit in the metro. Greater Minnesota lawmakers are convinced that their constituents are paying for what they view as a colossal boondoggle, while metro legislators contend their constituents’ contributions should be compensated with a robust transit system to lessen traffic.
The Star Tribune data combined the three major pools of money spent by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and assigned it to counties through a geographic analysis. It contradicts a commonly held perception in greater Minnesota — and one heard often in political campaigns — that the metro is taking more than it gives. MnDOT reviewed the data and verified its accuracy.
“The data show greater Minnesota roads are doing well under the formula and we need to make sure metro needs, particularly in transit, are taken care of,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, a DFL leader on transportation issues.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, conceded the discrepancy but said it makes sense given the nearly 255,000 lane miles in greater Minnesota against about 39,000 in the metro area: “I think the current distribution is reasonable and reflects the geography of the state,” he said.
From the greater Minnesota perspective, it has 87 percent of the lane miles but receives just two-thirds of the money.
Part of bigger picture
The funding discrepancy — and perceptions about who gets what — complicate an already difficult path to a major transportation package that Republican lawmakers and Dayton have been unable to achieve for more than two years, allowing the nation’s fifth-largest road network to decay while traffic chokes off movement of people and goods in the metro.
The two sides have disagreed about how to pay for it, with Dayton preferring a gas tax increase to protect funding for schools and other priorities, while Republicans want to use existing money.
But another source of conflict has emerged. Minnesota’s politics are increasingly geographically polarized, with Republicans dominating greater Minnesota while the DFL controls the cities, and especially the Twin Cities.
The geographic conflict is showing up at the Capitol in fights over issues like environmental protection and gun rights — but especially transportation.
“I’ve long maintained that it’s appropriate for the metro, the economic engine of the state, to subsidize greater Minnesota,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. “But it gets me going when they claim we’re stealing their money or getting more resources than we deserve.”
Republicans in outstate races have used DFLers’ association with the metro area to portray them as big city carpetbaggers in thrall to the cities’ liberal elites. At a candidate forum last year, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, attacked Dayton: “He put a train ahead of greater Minnesota,” referring to the governor’s commitment to Southwest light rail project.
Billions at stake
The fight is more than just regional bragging rights. Billions of dollars in transportation projects are at stake.
A long-standing consensus of Minnesota transportation politics, Dayton and others say, dictated that any significant bill had to push road and bridge money to every corner of the state, while also fueling the future of Metro Transit to lessen congestion in the state’s major urban center.
Republicans control the Legislature by dominating greater Minnesota with a shrinking presence in the metro, so their motivation to fund transit in the Twin Cities, such as the Southwest light rail, is waning.
In 2016, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, offered a plan to increase road and bridge money by $600 million per year, but it included no money for transit and an explicit pledge to kill the Southwest light rail.
In the end, the 2016 legislative session collapsed without any new transportation or public works spending.
But metro DFLers and some Republicans see light rail as an important piece of the cities’ transportation future that they say will attract companies and younger residents, who fear the lengthy commutes of such cities as Atlanta and Washington.
Torkelson, the House transportation chairman with the task of putting together a plan that can pass both chambers and get a signature from Dayton, pointed out that the road and bridge discrepancy in greater Minnesota’s favor disregards state support for Metro Transit.
The Met Council will receive $359 million from state sources this year to run buses, light rail and other transit systems designed to lessen Twin Cities traffic, while greater Minnesota will get $81 million for transit. Once those figures are added to road spending, greater Minnesota still receives about 22 percent more funding — about $1 billion outstate vs. about $800 million in the metro.
Still, Torkelson said he is committed to transit: “I as transportation chair have no intention of ignoring or trying to sideline transit. It is part of the conversation, and I intend to dedicate a certain amount of resources to addressing transit needs.”
He added an important caveat, however. The Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is made up of the five metro counties that collect a quarter-cent sales tax for regional transit projects, might dissolve. If it does, then Hennepin and Ramsey counties could increase that quarter-cent tax to a half-cent.
In that case, Torkelson said, the metro would require less state money for transit needs, which would make the discrepancy even more lopsided in favor of greater Minnesota.
Putting funds where the roads are
Absent new funding, the road and bridge discrepancy is likely to grow because the state’s first priority is maintaining existing assets.
“As we move to maintain assets, we move resources to where those assets are,” said Ted Schoenecker, the deputy state aid engineer for MnDOT.
With more than six times the number of lane miles in greater Minnesota, MnDOT will have little choice but to spend the money there.
Mayor Jeff Lunde of Brooklyn Park, a Republican who ran an unsuccessful race for state Senate last year, said the metro should adapt to the new political reality of geographic gridlock.
“It’s like the high school prom: You keep asking the same girl for a date and she keeps saying ‘no.’ So you move on,” he said.
Lunde is a strong supporter of light rail because, he said, companies considering a move to his city want a robust transit system.
The conclusion, Lunde said: “At some point the metro is going to have to move on and do it ourselves.”
Dayton called this unfortunate, but inevitable: “The Balkanization of transportation funding is unfortunate and works against everyone’s best interests. But I realize it’s the prevailing view.”