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Road, Bridge Investments Falling Ever Shorter

July 12, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
If you've ever wondered why you're stuck in traffic so often on Twin Cities freeways, look no farther than the Minnesota Department of Transportation's eye-opening report on trunk highway financing.

Over the next 23 years, MnDOT predicted, it will need $38 billion to maintain and expand state roads to the standards Minnesota drivers and businesses expect. But the expected trunk highway revenues of $14 billion over that period fall far short of that goal - more than $1 billion a year short.

What's amazing is that report was published in 2004, before MnDOT's boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, twice vetoed bipartisan legislative efforts to begin plugging the money gap. He blocked modest increases in taxes on gasoline and vehicle registrations - all 100 percent dedicated to roads and bridges - on the flimsy argument that they would burden taxpayers too much.

Never mind that in recent years those workhorses of state transportation finance have actually yielded declining revenues while road construction costs have been hit by double-digit inflation.

Or that Minnesota's gas tax of 20 cents a gallon hasn't changed since 1988, losing nearly half its buying power in that time, and is now lower than all neighboring states'. Or that tab registration fees were cut when the state was awash in surplus money in 2000, but haven't gone back up in these tighter fiscal times.

Two decades ago, in the days of cheap fuel, the state gas tax accounted for around 20 percent of the pump price. Today it's less than 6 percent. The latest legislative plan would have phased in a 7.5-cents-a-gallon increase, raising the rate to 8 percent.

Continued inaction means that hundreds of highway projects that Pawlenty's own MnDOT says the state needs remain unfunded. It means that vital work to unclog freeway bottlenecks such as the I-35W-Crosstown Commons are delayed and then undertaken only by stealing cash from other traffic traps.

It means that the proposed new St. Croix River bridge at Stillwater isn't scheduled to begin construction until 2024, by which time the original $373 million cost estimate is projected to nearly double.

And that's only part of the story of gross underinvestment in vital transportation infrastructure. According to the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, funding for local roads, bridges and transit across the state lags nearly another $700 million a year behind needs.

Increasing user fees such as the gas and license tab taxes - which are divided by a constitutional formula among state, county, city and township road budgets -- would fill some of that shortfall. It also would relieve upward pressure on local property taxes levied for transportation - an estimated $1.6 billion statewide last year, double the mid-1990s level.

Legislative proposals would have added about $700 million a year to funding for roads, bridges and transit - less than half the state's total $1.7 billion annual backlog. Governor Pawlenty and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said that was too much to bite off at once.

The next time you're idling away $3-a-gallon gas in freeway congestion, spending some of the average Twin Cities rush-hour commuter's estimated $700 a year in wasted time and fuel, ask yourself: isn't there a better way?

Yes, there is. And we're past time to get moving in the right direction.


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