Transportation funding: We must upgrade an outdated system

  • Article by: MARGARET DONAHOE
  • Updated: February 21, 2014 - 7:12 PM

Where we're going, we'll need roads. And bridges. And transit. And for a variety of reasons, the responsibility for this investment is ours — now.

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A rendering of the Hwy. 169-I-494 interchange before its completion. Adequate mobility is among the reasons one company, Shutterfly, chose to locate in the metro area.

Photo: Minnesota Department of Transportation,

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• Age: Our country’s infrastructure was largely built during the post-World War II boom. Baby boomer infrastructure that was built to last 50 to 70 years has reached the end of its useful life. It has to be reconstructed, not just smoothed over.

• Price: Construction costs have increased faster than the consumer price index, thanks to spikes in prices for oil, steel, aggregate, and other materials that go into building roads, bridges and transit projects. Since 2004, construction costs in Minnesota have increased more than 70 percent.

• Increased demand: Projections are that close to 1 million new residents will move into Minnesota over the coming decades. Those people will generate tens of thousands of additional trips every day. We have to plan now to avoid serious gridlock. In addition, heavier trucks and equipment are wearing out roads and bridges at a faster rate.

• Declining fuel consumption: Our funding for roads and bridges relies largely on the fuel tax, which is charged on a per-gallon basis, not as a percentage of the price. As more-fuel-efficient cars are being produced, the revenue from the fuel tax has not been able to keep up with rising prices and increased demands placed on the transportation system.

• Lack of adequate investment: Minnesota’s government has acted once in the last 25 years to increase the fuel tax, allow a sales tax for transit and restore the motor vehicle registration tax that was cut in the 1990s. The funding increases enacted in 2008 couldn’t possibly make up for so many years of neglect. The Legislature acknowledged at the time that more work was needed to adequately address the needs.

The funding gap runs into the billions when projects needed all across the state for all modes are added up. This includes work like finally completing Hwy. 610, expanding Interstate 94 between the metro area and St. Cloud, fixing two-lane gaps in corridors like Hwys. 14, 23 and 212, and eliminating bottlenecks on the metro-area freeway system.

Along with establishing an integrated transit network that allows people to get around the entire metro area, these projects will not be done without additional funding.

Only 10 percent of jobs in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area are conveniently served by transit. Almost 2.5 million commuters drive across a structurally deficient bridge in Minnesota every day. Nearly half of our roads and bridges are 50 years or older — past their design lives.

We all have a stake in the quality of Minnesota’s transportation system, because we all rely on it every day to live our lives. When the system isn’t improved, people can be killed. Every year, hundreds of people die and are seriously injured for life in traffic crashes.

Corrosion on steel bridges continues to be a problem. A section of the I-35 freeway in Duluth had to be closed for more than a week last year due to deterioration of important bridge supports. The chief district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation noted that the piling that supports the pier “was so corroded we could see through it.” Fortunately, MnDOT acted quickly, and no one was injured.

We want businesses to locate and expand in Minnesota. We’re losing the best and brightest to other states where modern transit systems allow young professionals to live and work without owning a car. Businesses need a transportation system that moves products and people safely and efficiently.

One of the reasons Shutterfly decided to locate in Shakopee was the completion of the new I-494/Hwy. 169 interchange to the north. The company wanted to make sure there was adequate mobility in the area. Other businesses have requested lane expansions or intersection improvements that would allow for more shipments so they can expand and add jobs. Without the movement of products and people, we don’t have an economy.

Our state and our country own a public asset worth trillions of dollars — our transportation system. Neither Republicans nor Democrats argue against the need for government to maintain it. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton signed into law increases in the federal gas tax because they understood that revenue from this user fee would be spent to improve the safety and efficiency of the transportation system on which our economy runs.

Transportation has traditionally been funded with user fees, a fair way to pay for the system. Those who drive the most pay the most. Over the years, Minnesotans have voted to constitutionally dedicate three revenue sources to transportation: fuel taxes, motor vehicle registration taxes, and the sales tax that we pay on motor vehicles. This means that the state Constitution prohibits the Legislature from spending the money for any other purpose. What you pay in user fees has to be spent on the transportation system.

Voters all across the country have voted to increase their taxes in order to have a better, safer transportation system. If we all pay a little bit more — the cost of a beer or a cup of coffee each week — we can have a transportation system that will get us where we need to go safely and improve our state’s economy by creating jobs and attracting new businesses.

If the Legislature does nothing in 2014, we will watch the cost of projects increase and the system deteriorate — leaving the problem for our children and grandchildren to deal with.

In 2013, 10 states acted to increase ongoing revenue for transportation. In some states, Republican governors signed increases in the state fuel tax; in others, Democratic governors approved increases in dedicated fees. The most serious states reformed their state fuel taxes so that they will keep up with inflation in the future. This kind of forward thinking will make those states more attractive to businesses and more competitive.

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