ST. PAUL, Minn. - High hopes of a major infusion of new money for Minnesota road, bridge and mass transit construction gave way Wednesday to the reality that the taxes needed to support those investments probably won't pass into law this year.
Senate Transportation and Public Safety Division Chairman Scott Dibble said he's looking at a status quo year while transportation advocates regroup for another push in 2014. A bare bones transportation package Dibble has put before his committee doesn't include a higher metropolitan area sales tax that was to pay for substantial new transit options. Nor does it contain a gas tax increase to fund road and bridge projects.
"We're just going to pause and take the opportunity over the next year or so to go out to Minnesota and make the case for the need for these kinds of investments," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "It's no secret that people are really interested in additional roads, bridges, infrastructure, transit, et cetera. At that same time it's no secret that raising revenue for those purposes is extremely unpopular. That gap really needs to be bridge."
House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, acknowledged the environment for passing a big bill is difficult but he's not willing to give up with five weeks left.
Dibble scaled back his plan after Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton doused the idea of a gas tax hike. The House plan was being held back until Thursday.
An advisory panel that studied transportation on Dayton's behalf last year recommended a higher gas tax; among the panel's members was Charlie Zelle, the man whom the governor later named transportation commissioner. But Dayton has been cool to the idea of raising the gas tax, which lawmakers pushed up as part of a 2008 road construction plan.
Dayton was more definitive in his opposition when asked about it this week.
"I don't support a gas tax. I don't think the people of Minnesota are prepared to support it," Dayton said.
Dayton had proposed raising the sales tax in Twin Cities-area counties for mass transit projects, but Dibble said it would be hard to pass that if it isn't paired with a new funding stream for highway and bridge construction.
The governor's spokesman, Bob Hume, said Wednesday that lawmakers shouldn't rule out the transit portion that rests on the proposal to raise the sales tax by a half-percentage point in metropolitan counties.
"The governor has been discussing his transit proposal with leaders in the legislature for months — it has support both inside the Legislature and with the public," Hume said in a written statement. "The governor stands at the ready to work together with them to pass it."
If no major funding initiative results from the session, some noteworthy transportation initiatives in the pipeline could be hindered. In southern Minnesota, Dibble said a long-sought reconstruction of Highway 14 to address safety and commerce concerns "is absolutely going to wait longer." He said other projects that could be held up include an expansion of Interstate 94 to ease congestion between the Minneapolis suburbs and St. Cloud, a Highway 23 project near Willmar and a Highway 169 rework between Tower and Ely.
Dayton has recommended borrowing $45 million in local road and bridge construction. But transportation experts say the backlog of needed work is far larger.
On the transit side, the pause could complicate a build-out of the Twin Cities light rail system. Some money for that effort could still progress in other construction proposals.
Rep. Mike Beard of Shakopee, a leading Republican on transportation issues, said waiting to move ahead on a major package suits him. Beard is open to a higher gas tax but wants to make sure there are stronger policies about how money gets spent. Until then, he said the Minnesota Department of Transportation can use existing dollars to move forward.
"MnDOT is not going to take a year off and shove everything to the backburner because we don't do a gas tax this year," Beard said.