Minnesota’s transportation system connects us as a state — literally. Without roads, bridges, transit systems, railroads, waterways and airports, we simply wouldn’t have a state economy. It’s what allows businesses to move products and workers to get to jobs.
While people in the Twin Cities area may have a very different transportation experience than do people in Greater Minnesota, we all rely on a statewide network that allows us to have a strong quality of life. Investments to address crippling traffic congestion may not be needed outside the metro area, but stronger roads and bridges to handle heavier loads of commodities are just as important in Greater Minnesota.
The majority of traffic fatalities occur on rural, two-lane highways, while the sheer volume of traffic can make it challenging to get around safely in the metro area. The cost of building highway and transit projects is higher in the metro, but the large geographic distances require a significant investment in Greater Minnesota.
What really unites all parts of the state is that our transportation system is deteriorating — everywhere. The land of 10,000 lakes is also the land of thousands of bridges, and, right now, we have more than 1,000 bridges that need to be repaired or replaced. Over half of our roadways are beyond their design life — more than 50 years old. Our transit systems can’t keep up with demand and don’t have the money to provide convenient, affordable service throughout the state. At the same time, construction costs are rising significantly — over 70 percent since 2004 — and the revenue that is dedicated to transportation doesn’t keep up with inflation.
Current funding can’t even cover the cost to maintain the roads and transit systems we have, let alone expand them to improve safety and mobility. Completing important highways such as 14, 23 and 610 and the beltway around the Twin Cities, and improving highways such as 169, 212 or 10, are needed projects that are not in the current 20-year highway investment plan.
Funding the transportation system actually unites people across the state. We have a long tradition of Minnesota voters supporting constitutional amendments to dedicate user fees to paying for roads and transit. Minnesota’s Constitution requires funding from the fuel tax and license tab fees to be deposited in the state’s Highway Trust Fund and to be spent only on roads, while the motor vehicles sales tax can be spent only on roads and transit.
From the 1920s through 2006, when the last constitutional amendment was passed, voters have understood the need for dependable, sufficient revenue from fees paid by transportation users to pay for multiyear transportation projects. From local governments to environmental groups, from businesses to labor, from professionals to people who have lost loved ones in preventable traffic crashes — everyone relies on the transportation system every day.
Legislative leaders in both parties have promised to take action in 2016 to address the funding shortfall. The state needs to increase revenue into the highway and transit accounts that ensure the dollars will be distributed throughout the state. Throwing a small amount of one-time money at one mode or in one part of the state will not improve how the system functions.
With a budget surplus, some have suggested that transportation projects make sense as one-time expenditures — like fixing the roof on your house. But that doesn’t work when you have 12,000 roofs to fix and maintain. Highways and bridges need attention every year. Transit systems need to keep moving people every year. One-time money will allow only some areas to benefit. If we want the transportation system to function better, we need to think long-term and have sustainable funding.
The problem isn’t going away — it’s just getting more expensive. Legislators need to agree on a transportation funding plan that provides dedicated, ongoing revenue that is distributed to all parts of the state to meet our need to move safely and live our lives independently, wherever we live.
Margaret Donahoe is executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.