Road construction at Highway 36 and Hilton Trail in Pine Springs.



“If you keep postponing this for years, or wait until after an election, you are just going to have a worse problem in the future here. There needs to be a broader public discussion about what we expect out of our transportation system”

-LEE MUNNICH, director, state and local policy program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs

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“We think that a bonding bill and a transportation funding bill should go together and [that 2014] should be the infrastructure session.”

-MARGARET DONOHOE, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance

Minnesota roads need bipartisan attention

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • July 19, 2013 - 7:23 PM

“Caution” could be a sign not just on, but about Minnesota’s highways.

The perception of problems on Minnesota’s roads isn’t just anecdotal, but data-driven. Just one example is the recently released Reason Foundation’s 20th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems. It ranks Minnesota’s state highways 42nd in the nation in overall performance and efficiency. Ranked 24th in last year’s study, Minnesota’s slippage is the steepest for any state in the nation.

Of particular concern is a 49th-place ranking in “urban interstate congestion” and “rural interstate pavement condition.”

The report, based on 2009 data, comes from a self-described libertarian think tank, whose mission is to “advance a free society by developing, applying and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets and the rule of law.” So the report is hardly special pleading from a union-backed group hungry for more road-construction funding. Rather, it’s an analysis by free-market advocates, and the conclusions suggest accelerating deterioration of Minnesota’s highways that could stunt economic growth.

And it’s not just because bad Upper Midwest weather beats up the pavement: North Dakota ranked first; South Dakota ninth; Wisconsin 31st and Iowa 33rd. Deliberate decisions about how much to spend on maintenance and improvements shape a state’s roads.

Other data, from other organizations, including the Minnesota Department of Transportation, similarly affirm the need to invest in infrastructure.

In fact, MnDOT’s new Minnesota 20-Year State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP) reports that 50 percent of state highway pavements are more than 50 years old, along with 35 percent of state highway bridges.

The first decade of the 20-year plan balances “preservation of existing infrastructure with investments in safety, new connections for multiple modes of transportation and other projects that advance economic development and quality of life objectives.” The second decade focuses “almost exclusively on preserving infrastructure.” Yet MnDOT still estimates that even if the plan is implemented the number of roads and bridges in poor condition will more than double, or even triple, within the 20-year span.

Even more worrisome, over the same 20 years, MnDOT projects a $12 billion funding gap in what’s needed to maintain and invest in improvements to the system. Unless leaders take action, Minnesota is en route to even worse highways.

These leaders need to come from all societal sectors. And they need to act now, in advance of the 2014 legislative session and well ahead of the 2014 campaign and elections.

The 2014 race is likely to tempt candidates into signing confining pledges not to raise taxes, even if the revenues would go to a nonpartisan public good like safer, better highways. All candidates, especially those vying to take on Gov. Mark Dayton, should resist such simplicity, which may be talk-radio-ready but belies the fact that Minnesota needs to remain economically competitive.

Dayton, too, cannot allow election-year politics to trump governance. He pushed back against House and Senate DFLers who advocated for a gas tax to fund infrastructure investment last session. He should make it a priority in 2014.

Minnesota businesses can help pave the way to better roads, too. In particular, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce should back a bipartisan approach to improving infrastructure, just as the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers backed Dayton’s bold initiative on transit that ultimately failed in the 2013 Legislature. Transit advocates should back road funding, too; the political reality is that the two must move forward together.

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