Charlie Zelle: MnDOT followed its legislative directive on Corridors of Commerce
In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature established the Corridors of Commerce program, which provides funding for needed transportation infrastructure improvements that remove traffic bottlenecks, improve the movement of freight, and reduce barriers to commerce.
Over the last five years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has worked to ensure this program meets the most urgent needs of our communities, and evenly distributes funding awards between the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area and Greater Minnesota. In fact, of the $748 million in Corridors of Commerce funds awarded since 2013, about $396 million has been invested in Greater Minnesota, and about $352 million has been invested in the Metro Area.
All of these projects have been essential to the safety of our roadways, the freer flow of commerce, and the growth of our state and regional economies. And every round of award announcements have left hundreds of worthy, urgently-needed projects unfunded, due to the state's ongoing and significant lack of transportation funding.
On Tuesday of this week, MnDOT announced the next round of Corridors of Commerce awards — providing just over $400 million for four urgently-needed transportation improvement projects: two in the Metro region, and two in Greater Minnesota. These four projects will ease congestion and improve the movement of freight on some of the busiest roadways in the state.
Tuesday's announcement, however, understandably created a mixed bag of responses from across the state.
The key source of disappointment for many (myself included) is that the two Greater Minnesota projects chosen for funding this year — according to explicit criteria established in law by the Minnesota Legislature — are located very close to the northwest corner of the Twin Cities. To many, that gives the appearance that all of this year's selected projects are in the Metro Area.
We understand that disappointment. And we strongly share the frustration that additional resources are not available to fund all of the many urgently-needed transportation improvement projects in every region of the state.
The Corridors of Commerce selection process in this round demonstrated the enormous need for transportation infrastructure investments in communities across Minnesota. In fact, Minnesota communities submitted 172 unique projects for consideration this year, with funding requests totaling more than $5.6 billion. The multibillion-dollar gap between what the public wants, and what the state can fund, clearly demonstrates there is a large need for transportation system improvements across Minnesota.
So, why were these four projects chosen?
Last year, MnDOT took additional steps to ensure there was geographic parity in the funding awarded for Corridors of Commerce projects in different areas of the state. We were later criticized by the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) and the Minnesota Legislature for doing so.
In fact, the OLA issued a report charging MnDOT to be more transparent in Corridors of Commerce project scoring and selection. Based on those recommendations, the Minnesota Legislature established new Corridors of Commerce selection criteria in state law. Those new laws specifically prohibited the Department from considering any criteria, other than those established by the Legislature.
After those new laws were enacted, MnDOT held a series of public meetings to vet and improve our project selection process as a precursor to this year's project selections. We then strictly adhered to the scoring criteria that was established by the Legislature in an open, fair, objective and consistent manner to rank the proposed projects.
To achieve regional balance in our award selections, the eight-county MnDOT Metro District was defined as the "Metro region" and the seven outstate MnDOT districts (encompassing 79 counties) were defined as the "Greater Minnesota region." This is the same Metro/Greater Minnesota definition that MnDOT has used for all past Corridors of Commerce programs.
In a proactive public outreach effort, MnDOT sought feedback around the state on these regional descriptions. Overwhelmingly, we heard that either the seven-county Metro Area or MnDOT's eight-county Metro district should be considered the "Metro region." State legislators involved with vetting these criteria were well aware of the regional definitions, and offered no objections.
There was no further guidance from the Legislature on regional distribution of Corridors of Commerce funding, beyond the 50-50 Metro/Greater Minnesota split. No specific regions were identified, and no particular projects were called out in the legislation. The Legislature established only that MnDOT should ensure the funding was split evenly between the Metro and Greater Minnesota, and that we use approved, fair and objective criteria to rank projects. We followed the direction they set in law, without deviation.
According to the criteria established in law, MnDOT's evaluation of all 172 proposals this year yielded a rank-ordered list of projects, which is available to the public on the MnDOT Corridors of Commerce website. Projects were then divided by regions, as well as ranked together. According to state law, the top two Twin Cities Metro projects with the highest scores were awarded funding, and the top two Greater Minnesota projects with the highest scores were awarded funding.
This process, and the limited funds available, left 168 projects unfunded, and 168 communities understandably frustrated.
In response to the criticisms MnDOT has heard this week, we remain committed to working with the Legislature, and with communities across Minnesota, to further-improve MnDOT's selection process for Corridors of Commerce projects. We also call on the Legislature again to provide a responsible, sustainable, and reliable source of funding that is adequate to meet the needs of all our communities — in Greater Minnesota, and the Metro Area alike. These funds are essential for the safety of our roadways, the betterment of our communities, and the continued growth of our state and regional economies.
In addition to Corridors of Commerce, MnDOT recently announced $1.1 billion in road and bridge construction projects that will be worked on in 2018. Those 253 projects, many of which are already underway, will help keep the state's roads and bridges in good working condition, improve safety for motorists and support thousands of construction jobs across the state. Of those 253 projects, 183 are located in Greater Minnesota, and 70 projects are located in the Metro Area — addressing the most urgent transportation improvements needed in communities across Minnesota.
Despite these investments, the enormity of needs across Minnesota cannot be overstated. The reality is the long-term transportation funding picture remains bleak compared to the system's needs. In 2017, Governor Dayton and the Legislature provided an additional $640 million in trunk highway bonds over the next four years as well as $164 million in cash. Still, the State of Minnesota will be $400 million behind every year, for the next four years, in the funding we need just to maintain our existing transportation infrastructure. By 2022, that annual funding gap will grow to $600 million — leaving our state even further behind in essential transportation improvements.
Governor Mark Dayton has sought for years to responsibly, and fully address those unmet needs. His proposal would have provided more funding to all road authorities to ensure that the state's entire transportation system would remain safe, competitive, and support a vibrant and growing economy. That is the comprehensive funding solution we need to ensure that Greater Minnesota and Metro Area communities get the transportation infrastructure they need, and rightly deserve. While other solutions have been and are being proposed, they fall short by not addressing with new revenue the long-term gap that we face over the next 20 years.
Corridors of Commerce has been and is a good program that provides for projects that might not otherwise get built. But, it is a stop-gap measure that can address only a small percentage of Minnesotans' needs. The state Legislature will likely continue to modify and adjust the program to ensure certain regions and projects eventually get addressed.
However, modifications to this single, limited program will not address all our needs. We look forward to working with the Governor and Legislature to find a sustainable funding solution that will responsibly meet Minnesota's growing, unmet transportation needs — in every region of the state.
Charlie Zelle is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.