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Brace Yourself for Bumpy Roads

April 08, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Minnesota's pothole season has been unusually tough on our vehicles and our backbones, no thanks to this year's bipolar winter weather. Fortunately, the early spring gave public works crews a head start on repairs. They've gotten a lot done, even with the televised shovel-leaning of a few bad apples.

Here's more good news: Wicked freeze-thaw cycles that open pavement craters deep enough to swallow a midsize SUV don't occur every year. The bad news is that routine maintenance of Minnesota's economically critical state highway system lags far behind the need as far as the eye can see.

This worrisome trend started a decade ago, when less than 2 percent of Minnesota highway miles were rated in poor condition. By last year, that number had tripled to 6.9 percent. And now the Minnesota Department of Transportation projects a further near-tripling of bad road by 2019 - to 2,744 miles of it, or 19.2 percent of the system.

"We are all in for a BUMPY RIDE..." MnDOT concludes in a February report titled "The Bumpy Road Ahead: Minnesota's 20-Year Plan and Pavement Conditions."

Actually, we've already got it. In just the five years from 2002 to 2007, Minnesota's ranking for road quality sank from eighth best in the nation to 27th, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

What a lousy time for the Hummer brand of mega-SUVs to go out of business! Sure, they cost a lot to buy and operate, but they were modeled on military vehicles built for the bomb-riddled streets of Baghdad. In the absence of sensible public policy to preserve vital transportation infrastructure, drivers need some kind of private-sector solution to preserve their suspensions and their spines.

On the other hand, Minnesotans could demand a reversal of the headlong rush to wear out the roads our tax dollars have built. At first glance, it wouldn't come cheap: MnDOT's long-range budgeting for trunk highway preservation falls as much as $200 million a year short of needs over the next decade.

Compare that, however, with the additional vehicle operating and repair costs borne by Minnesota motorists as a result of driving on roads in poor condition -- $1.1 billion a year, according to the national transportation research group TRIP. That's $347 annually per driver statewide, $431 in the Twin Cities. But if user fees such as the gasoline tax were increased to close the maintenance funding gap, the average driver would pay less than $50 a year more for a smooth ride.

Given the state's choices that make us all pay much more individually to replace plummeting public investment, it's no surprise that Twin Cities residents recently ranked transportation their No. 1 public concern for the sixth year in the past seven - ahead of crime and an economy mired in an historic recession.

Four out of five respondents to the annual Metropolitan Council survey also voiced support for the region's bus and rail transit systems. Maybe they're just tired of the bumpy, expensive ride on Minnesota roads and looking for a comfortable, economical alternative.

Transit offers that to the minority of Minnesotans living and working within walking distance of buses or trains. For the rest of us stuck behind the wheel, the road to affordable traveling in comfort and safety has to run through prudent care of the pavement we already have.

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