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Traffic Congestion Limited to the Metro? Think Again

September 27, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
 
Traffic congestion isn't just an urban problem anymore. As Minnesota farmers harvest their fields, trucks hauling crops to market plus slow-moving tractors and combines on narrow township roads create what's become known as "rural rush hour."

In places such as the sugar beet-rich Red River Valley of northwestern Minnesota, the traffic jam lasts all day every day, all the way into May.

State officials issued warnings this month for motorists to use extra caution in Greater Minnesota, especially in the flood-ravaged southeastern corner. Washed-out roads and reduced weight limits in that area "will require many growers, livestock producers and other shippers to find new routes to rail shipping points, Mississippi River ports and other destinations," said the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

Last year, farm vehicles were involved in 128 traffic crashes in Minnesota, injuring 45, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

A standing room-only crowd that packed the Blue Earth County board room Monday for a hearing before the state House Transportation Finance Committee demonstrated the concern rural Minnesotans have for their underfinanced roads and bridges.

They heard testimony that rural roads now must withstand twice the traffic and four times the tonnage they were designed for decades ago. Greater farm yields and value-added processing such as ethanol production have increased the traffic and boosted rural economies, but the transportation infrastructure hasn't kept up.

"Our agricultural products are about as far from the world market as you can get," Blue Earth County Engineer Al Forsberg told the legislators. "We need trucks, roads and bridges to get them there."

Forsberg's counterpart, Mike Wagner, proposed a 62 percent increase in neighboring Nicollet County's property tax levy for roads this year just for repairs and safety improvements. A Mankato Free Press editorial pronounced it "a realistic assessment of the needs" and added: "Gov. Tim Pawlenty's pledge of no new investment for critical needs is at the heart of the problem."

That underscores the reality that potential solutions for rural roads and bridges are entangled in Minnesota's broader transportation funding and policy puzzle.

Case in point: While the state's rural roads are already overloaded, MnDOT under Pawlenty has urged an increase in highway weight limits. That could reduce the number of trucks on the road, perhaps easing rural traffic tie-ups. And requiring more axles to carry more payload, as MnDOT has proposed, would spare increased roadway damage.

But heavier trucks are more deadly in collisions, and no amount of extra axles would minimize mega trucks' strain on bridges, more than 1,000 of them across the state rated structurally deficient. The collapse of the Interstate 35W Mississippi crossing Aug. 1 shows the folly of ignoring deteriorating bridges forced to carry loads they were never designed for.

Legislators have declined to increase weight limits until money is available to repair the damage already done to crumbling state, county and township roads. Some of it has been inflicted by unscrupulous truckers who flout the law with little fear of the state's declining weight enforcement efforts. New broad-based road revenues, long overdue and absent from the legislative special session agenda even after the 35W disaster, would go a long way toward eliminating the rural rush hour, boosting Greater Minnesota's economy and making country roads safer and freer from abuse by overweight vehicles.

Unlike the trunk highway construction borrowing favored by Pawlenty, reasonable increases in the gasoline and vehicle registration taxes would boost State Patrol weight enforcement and give county and township officials the resources to fix their roads and bridges before another tragedy grips our state.


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