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Blind Intersection, Cross Traffic Ahead
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Blind Intersection, Cross Traffic Ahead

We need to examine current spending and future needs before accelerating road spending.

For most of us, there have always seemed to be endless miles of smooth, fairly wide and well-maintained roads available to take us wherever we want to go, whenever we’d like to go there. We’ve come to expect they’ll still be there tomorrow, next year, 10 years from now.

So when the governor of Minnesota comes along and says we need to pony up $6 billion to $11 billion in additional funding for roads, bridges and other surface transportation needs over the next 10 years, we’re conditioned to say, “Why, of course!”

But our addiction to healthy roadways can fog our perspective on sound fiscal policy. And while nice roads are nice, legislators are better off not increasing funding for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) this legislative session if they cannot first receive a more objective explanation of what is needed, and hear better options on how to increase funding.

Roads and Bridges

Minnesota compared with other states

  • 4th lowest share of bridges rated deficient/obsolete
  • 5th most roadway miles (138,832)
  • 8th largest highway system by miles per capita
  • 8th highest gasoline excise tax
  • 13th in number of vehicles per 1,000 people (870)
  • 14th in total land mass
  • 15th in overall road and bridge spending per capita
  • 21st in total population

There doesn’t appear to be an immediate need for more money. In fact, things sound pretty good, according to Minnesota Management and Budget’s State of Minnesota Comprehensive Annual Report for the year ended June 30, 2014. This report describes different ways that Minnesota measures the quality of its roads and bridges. Assessments made through 2013 found these to be above goal. For example, Minnesota aims to have more than 92 percent of its arterial system bridges and 80 percent of all other road-system bridges in fair to good condition. Assessments found 95 percent and 94 percent, respectively, to be in fair to good conditions.

It also appears we may have more roads and bridges than we really need. Among all states, Minnesota ranks 21st in total population and 14th in total land mass, yet we have the fifth-largest road system as measured in total miles. Before we spend more, maybe we should think about eliminating some of the roads and bridges we currently maintain (and may need to soon replace). Doing so would free up funding for remaining infrastructure.

This brings up the all-important question, “Are there ways MnDOT could possibly better spend the $2.7 billion a year it’s already allocated?” Are we getting the best prices possible on concrete and asphalt? Are we laying down the best, longest-lasting material or are we repaving more cheaply with products that need replacing sooner than if we used higher-quality materials? Are we prematurely repaving roads (such as seemed to be the case with Crosstown Highway 62 in Edina a few years ago)?

Lastly, there is the matter of first understanding what our future surface transportation needs will be. Here, too, things seem fuzzy at best. Gov. Dayton created a bipartisan Transportation Finance Advisory Committee to help figure this out. But its December 2012 report conflicts with what others have found.

For example, the commission says, “State pavement condition declined in 2011 and is predicted to continue to decline under the current investment program.” Yet the state’s annual report for 2014 found pavement conditions actually improved in both 2012 and 2013.

The commission predicts “over the next 30 years, the state’s population is expected to increase by 893,000 people.” But a January 2015 report from the Minnesota State Demographic Center indicates it remains unclear just how much Minnesota’s population might grow during the next 30 years.

Clarifying all of these issues will help advance the dialogue on financing for roads—which we absolutely need to do to keep pace with rising construction costs. We also need to gear up to eventually replace many of our roads—up to 50 percent are now more than 50 years old; 40 percent of our bridges are almost that old as well. And we want to ensure Minnesota not only can cover maintenance but improve our surface transportation network to better compete with other urban areas around the world at attracting good employers and great talent.

To attract those employers and employees, however, it is best to ignore the governor’s usual “Tax ’em more!” approach and instead fund future road funding increases through approaches such as these:

  • Focus on what’s needed five years out instead of 10.
  • Ensure MnDOT is spending what it has as effectively as possible via an independent analysis.
  • Issue bonds for the state’s most pressing transportation needs. Given Minnesota’s stellar debt rating, anticipated increase in budget surpluses and obtainable interest rates of around 2 percent, it’s a smart way to fund projects that will be around long after their financing is paid off. Interest rates will not remain this low much longer.
  • Apply the eight policies of “value capture” (transportation financing paid for by beneficiaries of transportation investments) identified by a 2009 legislative report, including joint development between government and private enterprise, special assessments, tax increment financing and development impact fees in those situations where it makes sense.
  • Create a “Minneapolis Congestion Tax” like the one in Stockholm, Sweden. Individuals driving into Minneapolis would be charged a small fee via an electronic transponder (the same technology used for MnPass). This would reduce congestion and pollution, increase demand for public transportation (perhaps this could finally help justify Southwest Light Rail) and raise additional funds to maintain roads flowing into Minneapolis.

There are several smart ways to increase funding for something every Minnesotan uses and appreciates. As with any journey, we need a better road map before proceeding.

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