Transportation should be a topic on the campaign trail in Minnesota

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2014 - 7:00 PM

Candidates should face up to one of the state’s biggest challenges.

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Traffic congestion, crumbling roadway pavement and insufficient transit options have almost replaced the weather as Minnesotans’ most frequent complaints. But unlike the weather, there’s a good deal that Minnesotans can do to remedy their transportation problems — provided they don’t wait so long that improvement becomes unaffordable.

That’s why we’re rooting for focus on transportation in the 10 weeks and two days before the Nov. 4 election, particularly from candidates for governor and the state House. (State Senate seats are not on the ballot this year.)

This is not a small problem. Minnesotans need to know that a bipartisan, blue-ribbon state transportation advisory panel found a $1 billion-per-year gap between the revenue the state expects today’s transportation taxes to generate over the next 20 years and the expected cost of maintaining the current performance of the state’s roads, bridges, transit, rail and airports.

That panel also reported that if Minnesotans want to upgrade to a transportation system that keeps pace with this state’s economic competition, an investment closer to $2.5 billion more per year will be required.

These are daunting sums that will only grow with delay. Ignore the need, and economy-sapping congestion and infrastructure decay will only get worse. A creative, comprehensive response is needed from the governor and the 2015 Legislature. No cost-saving or revenue-raising options should be pre-empted from policymakers’ consideration. That includes an increase in the tax on motor fuels.

There’s much to dislike about the gas tax. It’s regressive, falling hardest on Minnesotans who drive long distances to jobs that pay not quite enough to secure their hold on the middle class. It fails to keep up with inflation and falls as vehicle fuel economy increases. It’s become a political hot potato. That’s why only one Legislature in the past 26 years had the gumption to raise it, and that 2008 move required a gubernatorial veto override and a push from the state Chamber of Commerce.

But the gas tax, constitutionally dedicated to highways and their bridges, remains the financial workhorse of Minnesota’s state’s transportation system, generating nearly half of the state’s share of highway funding per year. At 28.6 cents per gallon, it ranks 20th among the 50 states — in a state that has unusually high maintenance costs because of cold weather. It’s hard to imagine raising the sums needed to close the state’s transportation funding gap without some increase in the gas tax.

The 2014 Legislature spurned an idea that ought to be revived next year: The next gas tax increase should not be a per-gallon amount added to the price at the pump, but a sales tax imposed at the wholesale level. Such a tax would generate more revenue as the price of fuel climbs. The 5 percent wholesale motor fuels tax considered in 2014 would have raised a projected $360 million per year.

Ideas like that one deserve a serious look next year. That’s why we hope “no new gas tax” does not become the 2014 version of the “no new taxes” pledge that was much in vogue a dozen years ago among state Republican candidates, before two recessions revealed how difficult governing can be when pledges pre-emptively take reasonable solutions off the table.

Other ideas for beefing up transportation funding arose during the GOP primary campaign. One, seeking more efficiencies, is always worthwhile. Commissioner Charles Zelle, former CEO of Jefferson Lines bus service, has led an efficiency push since taking charge at the Minnesota Department of Transportation last year. An idea floated several years ago, turning snowplowing responsibilities over to counties in rural areas, warrants another look.

But internal efficiencies at MnDOT aren’t likely to come close to closing a $1-billion-a-year gap. Most state transportation money is not spent by MnDOT. It flows to private-sector contractors via a competitive bidding process.

Dropping any additional light-rail projects in the metro area is sometimes proposed as a way to divert more money to highways. But the state is on the hook for only 10 percent of the projected $1.7 billion required to build the Southwest light-rail line. Federal and local funds pay for the remainder, and only a portion of the local share might have been spent on other transportation purposes.

The state Constitution is an impediment to another idea: using general obligation bonds, of the sort that pay for public buildings, for highways instead. But even if it were otherwise, resistance to shortchanging state building projects for the sake of roads would be strong at the Legislature.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson has said he would seek to save construction costs by easing environmental regulations and requirements that contractors pay prevailing wages. Reviewing the regulatory burden on road contractors makes sense. But it’s far-fetched to think that large sums can be freed for transportation investments by allowing contractors more license to pollute, or that they’ll be eager to put $500,000 equipment into the hands of underpaid and inevitably lesser-skilled workers.

Still, Johnson deserves credit for offering a few ideas to close the transportation funding gap. The DFLers who controlled the governor’s office and the Legislature the past two years missed an opportunity to coalesce around a plan. Instead, they punted the transportation issue to the 2015 Legislature. Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL House candidates should be pressed to describe their approach to improved transportation funding.

It’s understandable that no Minnesota candidate wants to make “raise the gas tax” his or her campaign theme. But those who are serious about governing will leave that option on the table, and will talk about transportation needs in a way that helps Minnesotans understand why it belongs there.

  • THE PEOPLE’S WILL

    Whenever Minnesota voters have been presented a chance to dedicate tax revenue to transportation via constitutional amendment, they’ve done so by strong majorities:

    • <CHARENTITY>7</CHARENTITY>1924: Dedicating motor fuel excise taxes (the first gas tax) to the trunk highway fund, approved by 59.8 percent of voters.

    • <CHARENTITY>7</CHARENTITY>1956: Creation of the modern dedicated gas tax, approved by 73.5 percent.

    • 2006: Dedicating the motor vehicle sales tax to highways and transit, approved by 57.3 percent.

    Source: Minnesota Legislative Manual.

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