Minnesota House Republicans said Tuesday they want to spend an additional $6 billion on roads and bridges in the next decade, but their plan’s reliance on money from the state’s general treasury offers little hope of breaking a long transportation spending stalemate with Gov. Mark Dayton.
The DFL governor and Republicans who control the Legislature have long agreed on the need to pick up the pace of transportation spending, to keep up with population growth and repair aging infrastructure. But disputes over how to pay for it have stalled a series of proposals from both sides in recent years.
The GOP plan unveiled Tuesday taps existing state revenue sources, and would borrow additional dollars to pay for transportation projects. It does not include a gas tax increase, which Dayton has called necessary to make a serious dent in needs. Republicans disagree.
“Minnesotans know we can fund our priorities, including road and bridge infrastructure, without a harmful gas tax increase,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee.
The GOP plan would draw money from the state general fund by redirecting revenue from taxes on auto parts and repairs, rentals and leases, and by adding a first-ever surcharge on electric vehicles.
Dayton rejected this approach in the past. He argued that, without a constitutionally dedicated funding source like the gas tax, any new transportation spending would be the first to go when a recession hits and the state budget needs cutting.
Asked to respond to the latest GOP proposal, Dayton spokesman Sam Fettig sent a fact sheet that reads: “A real solution cannot use shifts or gimmicks.”
The Met Council, which manages transit in the Twin Cities region, attacked proposals from both House and Senate Republicans, saying it would lead to increased transit costs for riders. The Senate GOP released its own plan Monday, similar to but smaller than what their House counterparts offered.
The GOP proposals are the first salvo in what is expected to be an ongoing negotiation and political battle likely to carry through to the end of the legislative session.
More than half the state’s roads are more than 50 years old, and more than 40 percent of the state’s bridges are more than 40 years old, according to the Dayton administration. Both Dayton and Republicans want to spend billions on road and bridge improvements during the next decade. House Republicans would spend $2 billion during the next two years alone.
The House GOP plan would use $300 million in one-time spending on so-called corridors-of-commerce to solve the state’s worst traffic bottlenecks on important highways, while also using money to fix outstate bridges and help maintain roads in cities with less than 5,000 residents.
Despite the agreement on need, the funding disagreements prevented the Legislature and Dayton from making progress in the past two years. The 2016 legislative session ended in acrimony largely fueled by disagreements over funding for a portion of the planned Southwest Light Rail Transit line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, which Republicans have strenuously opposed.
In addition to differences over how to bankroll a major new transportation investment, the debate has grown regionally polarized. Republicans — whose base of support is in greater Minnesota — are increasingly skeptical of using state money to support transit priorities in the Twin Cities region.
“Minnesotans in all corners of the state are subsidizing operating losses for light rail trains they don’t want and may never use,” said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines.
The House GOP plan would require legislative approval for new light rail lines. Without it, their bill would end state funding of light rail in the Twin Cities by requiring counties, or the local Counties Transit Improvement Board, to fund 100 percent of operating and future capital costs of light rail.
Although it is true Metro Transit will receive $359 million from state sources this year, outstate Minnesota still receives 22 percent more money than the Twin Cities region in overall transportation funding, according to a Star Tribune analysis of spending by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Met Council.
Of the three main taxes that go into transportation — the gas tax, the sales tax on cars and vehicle registration fees — residents of the metro region contribute about 52 percent, according to House Research.
Adam Duininck, chairman of the Met Council, released a statement Tuesday that called the GOP approach “at odds with needs of the communities and businesses in the seven-county metro area.” He cited demographers’ estimates that the Twin Cities region will add 800,000 more residents during the next 25 years.
“It shows disregard and disrespect to communities that have approved transit projects and committed millions in local funding to build them, without legislative support, and further turns a deaf ear to every major business group in the region that has endorsed an expansion of transit,” Duininck said.