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Benson Gets Creative in the Face of Cuts

March 12, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Benson, a western Minnesota city of 3,400, got a lot of attention last month when it returned a $167,000 federal grant for a trail project to the state Department of Transportation because it couldn't afford the local matching funds.

Some saw it as another sign of an upside-down economy: Construction dollars from Washington that could spur much-needed employment going begging for lack of money in the city coffers. It sounds like a vicious cycle, and one that could be reenacted in many other places. But here, in the words of the late Paul Harvey, is the rest of the story.

Benson will get its trail anyway, a three-quarter-mile walking loop through a city park and ballfield complex, and for less than the $115,000 in local tax money it would have spent building it with federal help to federal standards. It's a Minnesota application of a public-works concept recently pioneered in Missouri called Practical Design. Since the Show Me State implemented this good-enough rather than best-possible approach six years ago, its state highway miles rated in good condition have improved from 44 percent to 83 percent.

In Benson, the city will use materials, equipment, design savvy, and public-works department laborers already on hand to put in the trail, probably in 2011, said city manager Rob Wolfington.

"The preliminary engineering is already done, for a two-thirds local match," he said. "We'll design it on the back of a napkin, and we'll use asphalt or gravel and in-house labor." Gone will be federal requirements to hire outside engineering and construction companies.

Wolfington said the federal trail grant received in 2006 was supposed to cover 80 percent of the costs, but other requirements would have boosted the local share to more than 40 percent. That wasn't affordable at a time when the city is cutting other expenses and staff, he said.

What happens to the $167,000 Benson sent back? MnDOT says it won't revert to Washington, but will be redistributed to other projects in the western Minnesota area. In fact, MnDOT says, the turnback of funds is quite unusual for the $29 million in annual federal aid that goes to statewide transportation enhancements such as pedestrian trail, bikeways, safety education and landscaping.

And that's the really good news for a state that, on average, gets back only 72 percent of federal taxes it sends to Washington. That's among the five worst returns in the nation, and a major reason why North Dakota (which gets back $1.68 for every dollar paid to the feds) and South Dakota ($1.53) can boast of lower state taxes than Minnesota's.

The Benson story is more proof of our state's rugged self-reliance in fiscal matters. Benson's leaders deserve praise for going ahead with a project plan that fits their own community's needs. But that shouldn't be a widespread strategy for a state that subsidizes most of the others and faces a budget crisis that ranks proportionally among the nation's worst.


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