Unlike some of the seemingly abstract issues debated in Congress and at the State Capitol, infrastructure affects the bottom line for every Minnesotan every day.

We’ve all seen the problems firsthand — aging roadways and worsening congestion that costs the average Twin Cities driver $1,332 a year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Still, Minnesota faces an annual funding gap of $885 million. These are big challenges that will require officials at the local, state and federal levels to identify pragmatic funding solutions.

I was pleased to talk infrastructure with Minnesota’s congressional offices on Capitol Hill earlier this month and especially pleased to highlight a leader in the arena — freight railroads. Where many of our roadways, bridges and waterways are falling behind, America’s freight rail infrastructure is the best in the world in terms of productivity, efficiency, cost and safety.

Unsurprisingly, this success story starts with massive spending — on maintaining the nationwide rail network, expanding capacity, deploying new technologies, etc. You may not realize it, but freight railroads are privately owned, footing the bill for their own infrastructure with little help from taxpayers.

BNSF and CN, for example, will invest $95 million and $80 million, respectively, into their Minnesota networks this year alone. Collectively, the freight rail industry has spent about $25 billion annually over the last several years.

These private investments matter to Minnesotans. A high-functioning freight rail system is good for the economy, connecting our agricultural, industrial, forestry and mining producers to markets. A study found that freight rail, through its connectivity power, contributes $40 billion of Minnesota’s GDP and supports a quarter of a million jobs in the state.

Rail’s efficiency compared with highway modes — i.e., large trucks — is also good news for drivers. One train can carry the load of hundreds of trucks, easing congestion and diverting some of the burden from highways in need of repair. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) found that just a 1% shift from highway transport to rail would generate $19.3 billion in benefits, 44% accrued to shippers in lower transportation costs and 56% to the rest of society in cleaner air, less congestion and improvements in safety.

My message to policymakers in Washington was twofold: preserve the balanced regulations that allow freight railroads to thrive — and ensure that infrastructure policy levels the playing field between transportation modes rather than exacerbating existing inequities.

For example, freight rail’s “user-pays” network should be a model for funding our highway infrastructure. An increasingly popular idea that has gained traction among several states is a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee based on the amount driven. A VMT that takes vehicle weight into account could ensure that the biggest trucks on our roads, which currently cover only about 80% of their damage, pay for their full costs. The U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that a VMT would spur “more equitable and efficient use of roadways.”

Our infrastructure woes will not go away without a commitment to spending what it takes, which in turn requires us to identify sustainable funding mechanisms. Freight rail, a transportation leader in Minnesota and across the nation, shows exactly what is possible when policymakers get it right.

 

Scott Schulte is an Anoka County commissioner, a member of the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board and president of the Association of Minnesota Counties.