Group builds momentum to support transportation funding issues
WILLMAR -- In a room filled with local government representatives, highway engineers and road contractors, Margaret Donahoe may have felt as if she was preaching to the choir during a meeting Tuesday in Willmar that focused on transportation funding.
WILLMAR - In a room filled with local government representatives, highway engineers and road contractors, Margaret Donahoe may have felt as if she was preaching to the choir during a meeting Tuesday in Willmar that focused on transportation funding.
Donahoe, from an advocacy group called Transportation Alliance, urged the group to talk to lawmakers so that transportation funding becomes a priority once the Minnesota legislative session gets underway next year.
“Momentum is building around the state to deal with this problem in 2015,” Donahoe said.
But after the presentation Tuesday afternoon from representatives of different agencies, including graphs depicting transportation funding shortfalls, data on the state’s aging roads and deficient bridges and information about projects that are being left undone, the attention turned to the six legislative candidates in the room.
Four area incumbents from the House of Representatives - Andrew Falk, Mary Sawatzky, Dean Urdahl and Paul Anderson - and two of their challengers - Gordy Wagner and Dave Baker who are running against Anderson and Sawatzky, respectively - presented their views on transportation.
For the most part, they generally agreed there are unmet transportation needs in the state that ranged from township roads taking a beating with bigger and heavier farm equipment to the 14-mile gap in the state Highway 23 four-lane corridor from Willmar to Interstate 94 near St. Cloud.
And there was some common ground on possible options for meeting those needs.
But the pre-election pull-and-tug in the discussion between Democrats, Falk, Sawatzky and Wagner, and Republicans, Anderson, Baker and Urdahl, indicated a consensus is a ways off.
Those differences, which ranged from raising the gas tax in order to generate more revenue to looking for additional ways to cut costs and stay within the budget, will likely be replicated at the Capitol after the election.
Harris Duininck, from Duininck Inc. - a major road contractor in the region - questioned why transportation has become a politically partisan issue.
“For a long time raising revenue for highways was a non-partisan issue,” he said. “We all want what’s good for the citizens, but we fight about it.”
Duininck said he blames Gov. Arne Carlson’s administration for the shift in the political tone. “It went partisan and it’s been that way ever since.”
Duininck said raising revenue is important, but it should be paired with finding ways to reduce costs. He said, for example, one in every six trucks can be removed from state highways if the gross load weight is increased.
“We can’t seem to come together for the good of the taxpayers,” Duininck said.
Donahoe said because the federal highway fund is near insolvency, some states have taken action to bolster their own transportation funds.
Some options that may be on the table in Minnesota include incorporating a gas tax that is based on a percentage of the total sale rather than a set amount per gallon, a sales tax on leased vehicles, license tab fees or bonding.
While general obligation bonds can be used for local projects, it would take a constitutional amendment to use bonds to pay for state highway projects, according to Donahoe.
While raising revenue means increasing taxes, she said there is a “cost for doing nothing” when roads are not maintained or they lack safety features. “People are being killed on our highways,” she said.
Bob Dols, who has worked with the Highway 23 Task Force for nearly two decades, said a big hurdle was overcome this year when state funding was allocated for an environmental review of the four-lane gaps that still exist in the corridor between Willmar and St. Cloud.
When the study is completed next year, it will make the project shovel-ready.
Dols said money is needed to complete the four-lane.
“Minnesota people like to finish what they start,” Dols said.
“It would be just terrible if it didn’t get finished.”
He said in the past, people paid for infrastructure projects that are still being used today and the state needs to “take care of the next generation.”
Donahoe said the discussion and education on finding long-term, stable funding for transportation need to continue so that legislators can make good choices when casting votes next year.