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Lawmakers agree about transportation needs, not funding

OLIVIA — Area legislators are “hopeful’’ that they will be able to cobble together a transportation funding bill in the 2016 session, although they cautioned that the issues that prevented a deal in the last session remain far from resolved.

“Our hope is is we are going to get something done in the second year,’’ said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. He joined Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, Friday addressing the local chapter of the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers as well as members of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s District 8 Area Transportation Partnership in Olivia.

The legislators said they are well aware of the frustration that exists over the failure to approve a bill in the last session, and the concerns about the growing gap between transportation funding and needs.

They pointed out that the chairs of the respective transportation committees in the House and Senate have been meeting in hopes of developing a proposal to bring to the short session that begins in March.

Current funding is not meeting the needs for maintaining the existing transportation system. “Our buying power is going down,’’ Jon Huseby, District 8 engineer for MnDOT, told the legislators.

He said there is also debate about how much additional money is needed for improvements to the system. For example, there currently are no funds available for constructing a four-lane segment on state Highway 23 between New London and Paynesville.

There is interest in increasing transportation funding, but the parties remain divided on how to raise the revenues, according to the legislators.

The bill supported by the Republican caucus would tap a portion of the state’s projected budget surplus, and dedicate tax revenues from the sale of motor vehicle parts and equipment to transportation. Those sales tax monies now go to the general fund.

A core group in the DFL majority in the Senate support an increase in the gas tax, originally proposed by Governor Mark Dayton. As a user tax, they see it as the most fair, Koenen explained.

The Republican caucus remains opposed to any increase in the gas tax, according to Urdahl and Miller.

There are members of the DFL-majority in the Senate who oppose diverting any of the sales tax revenues away from the general fund, Koenen said.

Koenen said he is open to a compromise bill, and cited the possibility of using sales tax revenues from automotive parts as one idea he would consider. Urdahl and Miller also suggested they are open to compromise, but did not indicate where they saw possible common ground.    

Urdahl noted that the GOP party leadership is opposed to an overall increase in taxes when there is a budget surplus. Any increase in transportation spending would have to be balanced by a decrease in funding elsewhere, he explained.

All three legislators said they are especially concerned about looking out for rural transportation needs.

And, they all agreed that the state needs a new transportation funding mix. Urdahl said he doesn’t believe the gas tax provides the long term sustainability needed due to improved fuel economy in vehicles and other factors.

“We need to come up with a better way to fund our transportation system in the future. I don’t know what that is going to be yet,’’ he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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