Minnesota lawmakers hit the brakes instead of the accelerator on transportation funding this year, and that’s regrettable. But there’s some consolation in knowing that not every state has stalled on critical infrastructure.
Fifteen states passed major transportation packages in 2015. Seven raised gasoline taxes. Eight raised various driving fees. Four launched bonding programs to finance new roads or transit projects. Republicans controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in 10 of those 15 states, including six that raised taxes. Among the highlights:
• Iowa (Republican governor and House) hiked the gas tax by a dime a gallon to pay for better roads. South Dakota and Idaho (both solidly Republican) raised the gas tax by 6 and 7 cents, respectively. Utah (solidly Republican) added a nickel, then converted all of its per-gallon tax to a 12 percent charge on fuel at the wholesale level. It also offered counties the option of raising sales taxes to finance transit and other non-car choices.
• Washington (Democratic governor and House) passed an ambitious $16.3 billion package aimed at building and fixing roads over the next 16 years while adding transit options. To pay for improvements, legislators raised the gas tax by 11.9 cents and authorized a referendum for a $15 billion expansion of Seattle’s rail transit system.
• Arizona (solidly Republican) failed to pass a roads package, but Phoenix-area voters approved a 0.3 percent increase in the local sales tax as part of a $31.5 billion plan to repair local streets and expand light rail over the next 35 years. The ballot included a map showing voters exactly which projects would be built.
The overall picture is one of states rallying to fix crumbling roads as low gas prices and improved fuel efficiency continue to eat away at revenue, and as Congress continues to avoid a comprehensive solution. Finding substitutes for per-gallon taxes is a trend in many states. Some are also pushing ahead to offer alternatives to driving while others (notably North Carolina) have tried to discourage choices other than cars.
Meanwhile, big corporations and chambers of commerce have lent support to a number of transportation initiatives calling for higher fuel and sales taxes. Wells Fargo, the Mayo Foundation, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Target Corp., and Delta Air Lines were among the corporate interests with strong Minnesota ties joining one or more coalitions favoring transportation investments in Arizona, Utah, Washington and California. In addition, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce criticized that state’s Republican leadership for failure to invest in transportation.
An unfortunate split in the business community has helped to keep Minnesota on the sidelines. Outstate businesses, along with the influential state chamber, are convinced that Minnesota competes mainly with rural, low-tax states like North and South Dakota and that big urban transportation investments aren’t needed. Larger companies and metro chambers see the state mainly competing against high-value regions such as Seattle, Denver and Phoenix — places that are pumping big money into new freeways and rail transit.
The metro viewpoint is the right one in this case. The Twin Cities region accounts for three-quarters of the state’s economic output, and its taxpayers heavily subsidize outstate roads. To raise Minnesota’s competitive profile, business interests must step forward, as they have in other states, to help build a roads/transit network that gives this state and region a better chance to grow and prosper.