Most everyone agrees Minnesota’s roads need fixing. But how to fund the fix has long vexed lawmakers.
Last year, the Legislature instructed the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to study whether it’s feasible to expand toll roads in the state with an eye toward raising additional revenue to maintain them.
The 106-page tome released last month concluded that more study is needed — if that’s the direction the state wants to take.
The discussion over toll revenue comes at a time when President Donald Trump pitched his $1.5 trillion plan to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure during his State of the Union speech last week. Of that amount, a reported $200 billion would come from federal sources, with states, cities and private interests making up the rest.
Minnesota has relied partly on federal and state gas tax revenue for highway upkeep, but that financial kitty has been shrinking. People are driving less and, when they do drive, they are commandeering vehicles that are more fuel efficient. Efforts in recent years to increase the state’s gas tax, which now stands at 28.5 cents per gallon, have gained little political traction.
“We see tolling as one of the tools in the toolbox along with the traditional gas tax” to help pay for road maintenance and other improvement costs, said Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Yet others see tolls as a regressive tax that unfairly targets those who are economically disadvantaged. And, as drivers use alternative routes to avoid tolls, some neighborhoods may be compromised by additional traffic.
“It’s the absolute worst tool in the toolbox, the most inefficient funding mechanism available” for road funding, said Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, a national consortium of businesses, organizations and individuals.
Minnesota doesn’t have the kind of toll-road system that is common on the East Coast and other regions of the country. The E-ZPass electronic toll system, for example, was first deployed in New York 25 years ago and now serves 17 states, stretching from Maine to Illinois to North Carolina.
MnDOT considers the current MnPass system, available on three Twin Cities-area interstate highways, a toll.
But MnPass is more of a way to mitigate congestion on some of the state’s busiest thoroughfares — not generate huge sums of money to pay for their upkeep. In fiscal 2017, MnDOT said it generated just $3.4 million from MnPass lanes, which are available to solo drivers willing to pay 25 cents to $8 during peak-travel times to avoid persistent traffic jams.
The MnDOT study, which cost $175,000, is careful to avoid any recommendations to expand the state’s current tolling system. “We have no plan at this point to build tollbooths anywhere in Minnesota,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee.
“But at the end of the day, you have to have revenue” to fix roads,” he said. “So we thought, ‘Let’s have someone take a look at it.’ ”
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who chairs the state’s Senate Transportation and Finance Committee, said the purpose of the study “was to determine the feasibility of tolling in Minnesota, as well as to gather a baseline of Minnesota-specific information that has never been collected before. However, the existence of the study is not an endorsement of tolling in the state.”
The “high-level” study looks at various scenarios for tolls on different types of highways throughout the state, including Interstates 35 and 94 in the metro and rural areas, as well as Hwys. 169 and 610, considered busy urban freeways. Hwy. 52 from the southern suburbs to Rochester was also included.
In one scenario, the state could raise as little as $204 million from Hwy. 610 to as much as $2.7 billion on I-94 in the metro area to reinvest in roads over a 30-year period. That’s assuming a toll rate of 7 cents a mile, and includes costs to implement the system, road maintenance and an adjustment for inflation.
In addition, the analysis looks at different kinds of tolling technology available, ranging from systems that still have tollbooth operators to those that are automated. There are also restrictions in Minnesota and federal law that curtail tolling, too.
The study was “gathering information, and not necessarily offering opinions,” said Chris Roy, MnDOT’s assistant division director for engineering services.
The analysis mentions partnerships with private entities that could build and maintain roads — a notion President Trump has supported but then backed away from. “Toll roads can provide a revenue stream not only to support repayment of bonds, but also to pay back the private sector’s equity contributions for the project,” the study says.
Kane, from the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, said “private companies are out for their own interests,” noting toll roads run by private firms in Indiana and Texas have sought bankruptcy protection.
The study did not assess the quality of the state’s highways. But in its annual report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives the nation’s roads a D grade, meaning they are in fair to poor condition.
“America’s roads are often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded and are becoming more dangerous,” the ASCE report states. One out of every five miles of highway pavement is considered to be in poor condition, the group said.