Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are relieved that Congress has passed a stopgap measure that will keep the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent for another nine months, allowing state transportation projects to stay on track.
The last-minute vote Thursday by the U.S. Senate, just before its five-week recess, provides $10.9 billion that the U.S. Department of Transportation can use to reimburse states for the costs of repairs and infrastructure improvements to roads, rails and airports.
That was critical for MnDOT, which this summer is doing the second-biggest slate of metro-area road-construction projects in its history — 74 of them — plus another 199 outstate. In total, the agency is spending more than $770 million this summer on road construction, and 60 percent of that comes from the Highway Trust Fund.
Without action, the fund was projected to run dry by Aug. 29, and transportation secretary Anthony Foxx had said the department would cut back on its payments to states.
For now it will be business as usual, and high-profile projects can proceed. Some of those include putting in the new MnPass lane from Maryland Avenue to Little Canada Road along Interstate 35 in St. Paul and Maplewood, adding a third lane on Interstate 494 in Plymouth and Maple Grove, and expanding Hwy. 100 to three lanes in each direction between Cedar Lake Road and 36th Street in St. Louis Park.
The fund is expected to run out of money again in May. That makes planning for next year’s projects more uncertain, spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said.
The Highway Fund and the associated Mass Transit Fund depend on revenue from the national gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, which was last increased in 1993. Talk about raising the tax has come up, but Thursday’s vote almost ensures it won’t come to the table again until after midterm elections in November.
That drew the ire of Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
“Instead of facing the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown, Congress has approved a temporary fix to fund the Highway Trust Fund and put off making any tough decisions until next year,” he said in a statement. “This ongoing game of ‘kick the commuter down the road,’ marks the fifth time since 2008 that Congress has passed a short-term extension of the bill.”