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Minnesota road, bridge plan reveals big projects but also key concessions

WILLMAR — With a price tag of $1.1 billion, the 370 road and bridge projects the Minnesota Department of Transportation is undertaking this year will do much to improve safety and mobility but it falls far short of meeting the state’s transportation needs.

“This is another year of significant investments,” said Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle, during a statewide video news conference Wednesday morning that was broadcast at the District 8 headquarters in Willmar. “I’m thrilled it’s another big year.”

But Zelle was quick to concede there are many more projects MnDOT would like to do if there was more money.

“There are more good ideas than there are available resources,” said Zelle, who said there are single projects that could use the entire $1.1 billion budget. “There are great needs,” he said.

A transportation advocacy group agrees.

During a stop Wednesday in Willmar, Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Transportation Alliance, said many people think a $1 billion transportation budget “should be plenty.”

But when those dollars are spread out over the entire state, the money does not go far and a budget that size will do little more than fix the potholes, she said.

She said governors in several other states are pushing for big projects that will cost several billion dollars. Along with those projects comes a unique blend of new funding that Donahoe said Minnesota should explore, such as using up-front capital from private sources, increasing the gas excise tax — which is based on the number of gallons sold — or replacing the fuel excise tax with a sales tax that would be based on the total at-the-pump sale of gas.

Because people are driving less, or driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, the state’s current gas tax is producing less revenue than expected while at the same time construction costs have increased — in part because of the high cost of fuel and oil-based asphalt needed for construction.

Donahoe said a sales tax on gas would keep pace with inflation.

Kandiyohi County Board Chairman Harlan Madsen, who served on Gov. Dayton’s transportation advisory committee, said he would like to see a wheelage tax that would place a fee on all registered vehicles. A bill being considered in the Legislature would give counties the ability to impose a wheelage tax.

In Kandiyohi County, there are 62,000 registered vehicles, said Madsen. If a $5- to $10-tax on each vehicle was imposed, it would help counties fund the many local projects that are also being left undone because of a lack of revenue, he said.

Even though Republicans have led the campaign to stop new taxes, Donahoe said two Republican governors took action recently to increase taxes to raise more money to build up the transportation system.

“It’s just a matter of saying ‘it’s time,’” said Donahoe. “We just need the political leadership to do that.”

In the morning press conference, Zelle said the Legislature is considering various proposals to add funding to transportation.

He said Gov. Dayton is aware that transportation is underfunded but at this point is “neutral” on increasing the gas tax or implementing other funding mechanisms for the highway system.

Zelle said MnDOT is also not taking an active role in advocating for additional funding but is at the Capitol to provide factual information to legislators about the transportation needs of the state for the next 20 years.

Zelle said a solid state transportation system is vital for communities and the economy to grow.

Donahoe said surveys indicate that once people make the connection between better roads and transportation-specific taxes, such as a gas tax, they are willing to pay more because they see the value of transportation for their family, community and economy.

“They can see what they’re going to get for their money,” said Donahoe.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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