Chamber of Commerce hears pitch to increase the state's gas tax
WILLMAR -- Minnesota has an annual 10-year transportation funding shortfall of $2.4 billion and is in "such disarray" that counties and cities are taxing property owners to pay for state highway projects.
That's why a gas tax increase, as well as other revenue-enhancing methods, is needed, according to Tim Worke, a former Minnesota Department of Transportation employee who is now the director of the transportation and highway division of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. Worke made his case for additional transportation funding Thursday to the policy committee of the Willmar Area Lakes Chamber of Commerce. He was joined by Gary Sauer of the Tiller Corporation and Progress in Motion -- an umbrella organization that promotes transportation funding increases.
Sauer and Worke were invited to speak to the group about transportation funding by Harris Duininck, president of Duininck Bros. Inc. of Prinsburg.
Bonding for road and bridge projects is an important part of the financing plan, but it should not be the only mechanism, they said. If the state continues to borrow money to pay for roads without enhancing revenue, Minnesota "will continue to get into trouble" like a person who's maxed out on a credit card, Worke said.
Sauer said renewed discussion about a five-cent increase in the gas tax from 20 to 25 cents is encouraging but said it "isn't even close" to generating enough money to bridge the funding gap. He said the state needs a 30-cent gas tax to "get ahead of the game."
Whether it's through local property taxes that are used to build roads, or extra gas used while sitting on congested roads, Sauer said people are already paying more for transportation. He said his company would actually save money by paying a higher gas tax to build new roads if it meant burning up less gas while stuck in congested metro traffic.
Worke said Minnesotans can view a gas tax as something bad that will "bankrupt" people, or as an investment that will not only improve roads but also encourage economic development, job growth and expand the tax base.
"It's an investment for things to happen in the future," Worke said.
Towns, schools and businesses cannot grow without an adequate transportation system, he said, pointing to Duininck's new commercial venture, Water View Business Park in Willmar, as an example of economic development that may not have happened without vital transportation links.
By the same token, Jason Versteeg, an engineer with Duininck Bros., said commercial development often helps fund local road and street projects, which can spur additional economic development that provides tremendous benefits to communities, like Willmar.
With the gas tax stuck at the 1988 level of 20 cents, Worke said Minnesota is "behind the curve" in maintaining roads and bridges, which will result in large capital replacement projects in the future, citing the I-35W bridge as an example.
He said he is "angry" that Minnesotans "have allowed this to happen" to the state's funding for infrastructure.
Duininck said his company felt the effects of the state's deteriorating infrastructure this summer when they were working on a project in Nobles County. After the collapse of the I-35W bridge, problems with two or three bridges in Nobles County resulted in load restrictions that increased the mileage Duininck Bros. trucks had to travel to carry hot-mix to the construction site.
Without new revenue to fund road projects soon, Minnesota construction companies could lose well-trained employees with specialized skills, Duininck said. When the state eventually does increase the funding, he said those employees will be gone.