Minnesotans gassing up for this Memorial Day weekend are probably enjoying gasoline prices at their lowest point in five years — but not the roads and bridges they’re driving on.
Those competing interests will continue indefinitely as state and national lawmakers can reach no consensus on how to fix the crumbling infrastructure, and most taxpayers show no interest in paying more.
In Minnesota, comparatively low gas prices and more-efficient vehicles have tamped down revenue collected by the gas tax to fix aging roads and bridges. A wholesale gas tax proposed this legislative session by Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate DFLers landed with a thud in the wake of the state’s $2 billion surplus. Legislators failed to pass a transportation bill that included any meaningful increase in funding for infrastructure.
And federal lawmakers this week pushed the snooze button on fixing the impoverished Highway Trust Fund — instead passing a two-month extension that will expire right in the middle of the road construction season.
As a result, the state gas tax of 28.5 cents a gallon and the federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon remain the same.
And that’s just fine for most motorists. Almost 5 percent more will journey 50 miles or more from home this holiday weekend compared to last year, according to the AAA.
“Now that gas prices are low, why would you want them to go up with more taxes?” said an incredulous Andrea Van Hofwegen, who commutes from her home in Brooklyn Center to her job in Minneapolis.
Few people fueling up Friday at Bobby & Steve’s Auto World in Minneapolis had any inspired ideas on how to pay for upkeep of Minnesota’s aging roads and bridges.
“I think they should tax other things,” said Austin Schreder, of Minneapolis, who drives a hotel van. He favors increasing taxes on cigarettes and encouraging commuters to ride bikes or use public transportation to cut down on road usage.
“A [higher] gas tax would put a lot of pressure on people financially,” he said. “It’s hard enough to find a job and live comfortably.”
Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said: “People don’t realize how little they’re paying in gas taxes. It’s maybe a couple hundred dollars a year in state and federal taxes, and if your car is fuel efficient, it’s even less.
“When compared with what consumers pay for their cable, water and electric, the gas tax is actually very low,” he said.
By passing a two-month extension to the Highway Trust Fund, Congress has put off the doomsday scenario of stalling out state-planned construction and road improvement projects ahead of the busy season. But this extension pushes that right to the middle of the busy summer legislative season, ahead of the four-week August recess.
Most lawmakers believe more needs to be done than the short-term patches. In the past six years, Congress has passed 32 short-term measures. Though all of Minnesota’s House members voted yes on the two-month extension, many grumbled that the short-term solution was unacceptable for states to do any real planning.
“I believe we cannot rebuild America’s roads, bridges and transit systems two months at a time,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, of Minneapolis. “A long-term plan for our nation’s infrastructure should be bipartisan. When President Eisenhower boldly proposed the creation of our interstate highway system, House Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly supported the idea.”
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s western plains, agreed.
“Time is of the essence,” Peterson said Friday. “In Minnesota, our lingering, cold winters leave a short window for the construction season. Long-term certainty is the only way to ensure that local communities can have the time and flexibility they need to respond to unique transportation needs we face in rural areas. Minnesotans are also unfortunately familiar with the consequences of cutting corners when it comes to our roads and bridges.”