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Transportation in Minnesota: Staring Down a Bumpy Road

May 26, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Without fanfare, the Minnesota Department of Transportation recently issued an assessment of its 2009 work to keep the state's people and commerce moving via boats, buses, trains, planes and automobiles. Even wheelchairs.

MnDOT's modesty is understandable. Even though the annual report card is self-graded, it found that weaknesses and challenges in the agency's performance outnumber its claimed strengths.

For example, the report, subtitled "Your Destination ... Our Priority," repeats earlier projections that, under current funding and construction plans, the share of state highway pavement in poor condition remains on course to increase tenfold from 2000 to 2019, when it's projected to hit 19 percent.

What's missing, however, after the document was vetted in the governor's office, is a prior draft's stark warning to motorists: "We are all in for a BUMPY RIDE."

No matter how you spin it, though, rough pavement is a weakness in transportation policy that we'll all pay for in higher vehicle maintenance and repair costs as well as more traffic accidents. As early as 2007, Minnesota had already sunk to 27th in the nation in state highway quality, with bad roads accounting for less than 6 percent of the total, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Another federal survey rated the 2008 condition of Minnesota's interstate highways in the bottom quarter of the nation, and dead last in the Upper Midwest.

So it's no surprise that another weakness highlighted by MnDOT is declining customer satisfaction with state highway maintenance. Last year, surveys showed it sank to a decade low of 6.0 on a scale of 1 to 10. The agency's goal of 7.0 has yet to be reached. The overall maintenance score "is heavily influenced by the smooth surface rating," MnDOT says.

MnDOT dubs a list of other transportation deficiencies in the state as "challenges," but for the sake of fairness and balance let's look first at what it calls "strengths." A couple of these should be significant points of Gopher State pride:

  • Traffic fatalities have plummeted in Minnesota to the second lowest rate in the nation, 37 percent below the U.S. average. MnDOT credits the "4 E's" of engineering, enforcement, education and emergency trauma systems for this welcome trend.
  • Following the catastrophic collapse of the Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge in 2007, legislators enacted over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto an estimated $2.5 billion, 10-year bridge improvement program. As a result, bridge inspections and maintenance as well as replacement of deficient spans have risen to nation-leading levels. Among the 50 states in 2009, Minnesota had the fifth-lowest percentage of highway bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
  • MnDOT also gives itself high marks for statewide, national and global travel connections via roads and airports (but not railroads), snow and ice removal, and project delivery. Boosted by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, MnDOT set records with more than $2 billion in construction contract awards combined this year and last.
Now, back to the challenges:
  • Twin Cities freeway congestion has resumed its long-term upward trend with a recovering economy, but MnDOT thinks that will be mitigated by impending completion of the Crosstown Commons and Wakota Bridge projects as well as increases in express transit ridership.
  • State highways lag far behind federal accessibility standards for the disabled. Only one in 10 intersections has pedestrian signals prescribed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it will take 15 to 20 years to retrofit most of them. Curb ramps for wheelchairs also are inadequate.
  • Greater Minnesota transit, for decades a national model, will see service levels "gradually drop due to a growing gap in both operating and capital funds relative to increasing demand and declining purchasing power," MnDOT reports. For more on this, see Minnesota 2020's December 2009 report .
  •  Short line railroads, a mainstay of shipping for Minnesota farming, mining and manufacture, are in such poor repair that 556 miles of the system cannot be operated at even 25 miles per hour. Upgrades are estimated to cost around $300 million, but "state-funded rehabilitation ... has been limited to small segments of track compared to statewide need," MnDOT says.
  • Transportation fuels produce a quarter of Minnesota's greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. Consumption in the state dropped 8 percent from 2004 to 2009, but "there is no assurance the trend will continue," MnDOT says. To meet ambitious emission-reduction goals in Minnesota's 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, MnDOT emphasizes cutting congestion, vehicle miles traveled, fuel consumption and carbon content while promoting transit ridership, bicycling and walking.
Unfortunately, overcoming Minnesota's transportation weaknesses and challenges will be hampered because "a long-term decline is still expected in primary funding sources," MnDOT says. When fuel prices rise, gasoline and diesel taxes, once the state's transportation finance workhorse, actually shrink because of less driving--while MnDOT's materials and operating costs go up.

In other words, brace yourself for a BUMPY RIDE.

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