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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Seizing an Opportunity

February 03, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

We’re experiencing a mild winter. While a nice change of pace from last year’s deluge, mild winter weather’s consequences are a decidedly mixed bag. Winter is normal in Minnesota. We need normal more than we need unusual.

The winter recreation industry is not having a great year. Without much snow cover, ski, sled dog and snowmobile races, are being delayed, relocated or canceled. Ice fishing tournaments are being called off because, unbelievably for January, thinning lake ice is too unsafe to proceed.

Farmers and gardeners are not especially pleased. Light snow accumulation stresses dormant plants that should be buried under a foot of snow for a significant chunk of the winter. Last summer’s drought continues, found in this winter’s minimal snowfall. Anticipating spring planting, winter drought only complicates the 2012 growing season. Without increased precipitation, crop yields will be down, keeping food prices high.

On the other hand, strained city, county and state snow plowing budgets welcome the respite. I’m hard pressed to recall a snow emergency this year. Community budgets, squeezed by the becalmed economy and by conservative wealth-favorable tax policy, need a break. Little-to-no snow plowing overtime creates fiscal breathing room.

What should we do with the savings?

For most communities, the state’s unilateral revenue-sharing cuts have forced tough choices. Local elected leaders cut budgets, slashed programs and raised property taxes. The mild winter’s cost savings won’t restore eliminated services but will mitigate planned additional cuts. In other words, less snow plowing might prevent further, deeper spending reductions for things like infrastructure recapitalization and investments.

Maybe we could do something smart, rooted in research and analysis rather than in conservative ideology. Roads would be a good start.

Minnesota’s road and bridge infrastructure, at every level, has been underfunded for the past ten years. While the economic recession and slow recovery decreased use, we’re still exhausting our roads’ and bridges’ capacity faster than we’re maintaining it. Yes, as any highway engineer will tell you, any rebuild decision can be put off for a year or two but not forever. Roads and bridges have functional lives. With enough time and use, they won’t function as designed.

Consider the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The National Transportation and Safety Board report found that design flaws probably caused the cascading structural failure. Additional weight, present on the bridge due to a construction project, was also a likely contributing factor.

Built in 1961, the I-35W bridge was first evaluated as structurally deficient in 1990. That doesn’t mean that the bridge was at imminent risk of collapse but reflected growing concern with corrosion. Bridges, like every constructed object, aren’t eternal. They wear out. When that happens, we either replace the structure or stop using it. Since robust infrastructure is inseparable from economic competitiveness and prosperity, permanently closing roads and bridges carries powerful, community marginalizing consequences.

This year’s mild winter creates opportunity because truly mild winters –like this one, at least so far- occur infrequently. When they do, we need to move quickly. Rather than bemoan lost ice fishing time, we should be using mild weather to achieve other objectives.

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m not really talking about mild winter weather conditions. Mild winter is metaphor for low interest rates. With building and borrowing costs at all-time lows, Minnesota should seize the opportunity to expand infrastructure bonding authority, financing capital improvement projects.

Interest rates will never be this low again. Let’s bond now, paying for the road and bridge rebuilding that we’re going to rebuild anyway. We can do it at low cost to Minnesotans or we can wait until interest rates and project costs begin rising, asking Minnesotans to pay for work that we should already have completed.

By modest measure, Minnesota can afford to issue $2 billion in new state bonds. Governor Dayton proposes a $775 million package. The State Senate majority caucus has suggested $400 million while the State House majority caucus mumbles about something substantially less than that.

Most of Dayton’s investments will recapitalize existing infrastructure and public facilities. Like an unexpected, exceptionally mild winter, the combination of clear need and exceptionally low finance and construction costs probably won’t happen again in our lifetimes. Minnesota’s policymakers won’t just be foolish for ignoring this opportunity to invest in Minnesota’s infrastructure, their actions will reasonably be considered irresponsible.

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