It’s said that Minnesota has two seasons — winter and roadwork — and, yes, this summer has been especially frustrating for Twin Cities commuters. They’ve seen too much orange. Orange road signs telling them things they don’t want to hear, like “left lane closed” or “detour ahead.” Orange barriers and construction equipment blocking every movement.
The whole mess descended into bad comedy last weekend when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) temporarily closed two major freeways: the one heading west out of downtown Minneapolis and the one heading east toward downtown St. Paul. To get from one downtown to the other required an improbable 18-mile detour through Roseville, Arden Hills and Little Canada. (“Honey, I think we’ll stay home.”)
But that’s not the whole picture. Hwy. 100 through St. Louis Park and Edina is all torn up, with a half dozen interchanges closed. Ramps near the State Capitol and along the freeway heading north out of downtown St. Paul are blocked off. The freeway through Plymouth and Maple Grove is a battle zone. Drivers hoping to negotiate Wayzata, Minnetonka, Mendota, Ramsey, St. Michael, Victoria, Waconia and Jordan face difficulty.
As for city streets, well, you wouldn’t want to try Kellogg Boulevard or Snelling Avenue in St. Paul or Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis. The North Loop is torn up. Nicollet Mall is closed for two years; 7th and 9th streets are a zoo at rush hour. And Downtown East? Forget about it. General Patton and his platoon of Sherman tanks have secured a perimeter around the emerging stadium and its offspring developments.
The hardest thing to swallow is that all of this is good news. Roads need fixing. It would be better news if more of the fixes were adding actual capacity. (Most aren’t.) Or if more of the fixes were of the fundamental, foundational type that the system really needs rather than just short-term patch jobs. (Most aren’t.) But, as anyone who follows transportation politics knows, neither Congress nor the Legislature is willing to cough up the money needed to expand and repair the roads in a sane, systematic way. In that sense, most of the orange we’re seeing is a mirage.
Of the two dozen major projects underway in the metro area, only four will add roadway capacity. The others might be best described as “repairs of desperation” — usually the application of a layer of asphalt over the ravaged old one, a fix that will start crumbling again within months.
President Obama was right last week to criticize the House for failing to attack the problem thoughtfully and comprehensively. “We can’t keep funding transportation by the seat of our pants,” he said, adding that China, Germany and other advanced nations “don’t operate that way.”
Minnesota’s system, too, is characterized by fits and starts. As columnist Lori Sturdevant noted last Sunday in these pages, the current frenzy was set off by a bonding surge that will run dry next year. The Legislature’s likely response will be another one-time burst of borrowed money.
That’s better than nothing. But a more responsible solution — one that would deliver a steady revenue stream to rebuild roads at a lower cost with less disruption to drivers — would be to raise the fuel tax, a step that apparently requires too much foresight. A whole generation of roads (the interstates), all built within a few years, are now deteriorating at the same time. They don’t need patching; they need systematic rebuilding.