Despite gas tax hike, MnDOT sees no quick fix to road woes
WILLMAR -- The state's gas tax increase is not generating the kind of revenue expected to advance state road projects. A tight economy and $4 gas is prompting people to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, reduce miles driven and purchase less gas. ...
WILLMAR -- The state's gas tax increase is not generating the kind of revenue expected to advance state road projects.
A tight economy and $4 gas is prompting people to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, reduce miles driven and purchase less gas.
The result is a flat to low growth rate of revenue, according to officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation who were in Willmar Thursday to discuss the proposed 20-year state transportation plan.
"There's very little extra money," said Peggy Reichert, MnDOT director of statewide planning.
It's estimated MnDOT will receive $2.6 billion over 10 years from new tax revenues.
That will allow MnDOT to "do much, but not everything," according to the plan.
When it comes to funding, "There is no silver bullet," said Tom Sorel, MnDOT's new commissioner.
Because of limited funds and a legislative mandate, MnDOT intends to focus on taking care of existing infrastructure -- specifically pavement and bridge preservation.
The structural integrity of infrastructure is the "cornerstone of safety" and is MnDOT's "top investment priority," according to the draft plan.
In District 8, headquartered in Willmar, it's projected the $32 million in targeted revenue for 2013 to 2018 will not meet the $64 million in preservation needs.
Never mind all the other needs of state rural roads, like improving intersections or expanding highways through new construction. MnDOT won't be ignoring those needs, but will be looking at "lost-cost, high-benefit" ways to do that, like using rumble strips on lanes.
Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said he heard things Thursday that "are opening my eyes" to the transportation funding issue.
"It is troubling to me to see that despite the huge gas tax increase, we're treading water as far as our transportation system goes," said Gimse in a brief interview at the meeting.
Gimse, who said he voted against the gas tax increase this year to protect the "hard-working families" in his district who are struggling to make ends meet, said new gas tax revenues and license tab fees are "just going to be filling a hole" because fewer miles are being driven and the cost of construction is skyrocketing.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, had a different take on the situation.
"Imagine what this conversation would be like had we not passed the transportation bill last year," said Juhnke. "Because what we're hearing is that it's keeping us even. Dead even."
Transportation funding is a "delicate issue," said Kandiyohi County Public Works Director Gary Danielson, who is pleased with MnDOT's priority projects. "They need to get back on top of the bridges and they've got to preserve the system," said Danielson in comments after the meeting.
"To do more than that is going to take more money," Danielson said.
Despite the challenges, Sorel cautioned against painting a "bleak picture" for the state's roads. "There is a lot of hope for the future of transportation," he said.
With the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, he acknowledged the public's faith that MnDOT can be trusted with the safety of roads and bridges has been harmed. "We need to do what we say we're going to do."
He said innovation in road construction and new ideas for funding transportation, like a tax on miles driven, could provide new options.
Sorel drew praise for the new leadership he's brought to MnDOT.
Juhnke said he was happy just to have the commissioner at the planning meeting.
Danielson was impressed that MnDOT's top-level manager was "really listening and really understanding what the issues are" and "giving us some straight answers."
MnDOT will continue to hold meetings around the state this summer to get public input. The final plan will be completed in March. The Legislature will use the plan for future decisions on transportation projects.
In a box:
MnDOT is proposing 10 policy areas with strategies and performance measures in its updated 20-year transportation plan.
The 10 points are:
- System structural integrity (bridges, pavement and other assets)
- Safe travel -- reducing fatalities
- Efficient maintenance, operations, security
- National and global connections
- Statewide connections
- Twin Cities mobility and accessibility
- Greater Minnesota regional mobility and accessibility
- Local community mobility and accessibility
- Energy and environment
- Innovation, transparency and accountability