The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 13, 2013

Our View: Delay on state’s road plan is unfortunate

The Free Press

— The Minnesota Legislature’s apparent abandonment of even a modest increase in transportation funding this year is a disappointment.

Senate and House leaders dropped the idea of raising the gas tax by 7 cents a gallon after Gov. Mark Dayton said he couldn’t support it. His chief of staff said the tax puts an “undue burden” on the middle class and “isn’t large enough solution for the statewide transportation needs that Minnesota is facing.”

An advisory panel that studied transportation on Dayton’s behalf last year recommended a higher gas tax; among the panel’s members was Charlie Zelle, the man whom the governor later named transportation commissioner.

Without citing any poll or survey, the governor’s office said the tax has “little to no support outside the walls of the Capitol,” which is strange. When the governor visited the Mankato area and asked a show of hands of those supporting the tax, the majority of the 200 attendees raised their hands.

However, the governor’s office said he does support raising sales taxes in the Twin Cities metro area for light-rail and bus transit. Apparently those middle class taxpayers won’t find that as an “undue burden” and has “support both inside the Legislature and with the public” again without citing the source of that polling.

The governor would rather wait for his new Department of Transportation chief to develop a more comprehensive plan that can generate billions of dollars. The tax increase that was tabled “wasn’t enough.” Well, zero isn’t enough either and waiting only delays projects that have long languished with inadequate funding and allocation.

In southern Minnesota, Senate Transportation and Public Safety Division Committee Chairman Scott Dibble said a long-sought reconstruction of Highway 14 to address safety and commerce concerns “is absolutely going to wait longer.” He said other projects that could be held up include an expansion of Interstate 94 to ease congestion between the Minneapolis suburbs and St. Cloud, a Highway 23 project near Willmar and a Highway 169 rework between Tower and Ely.

Dayton suggested the state borrow $45 million in local road and bridge construction. But in a stark underlining of how desperate the state situation is, transportation experts say the backlog of needed work is far larger.

If this is a good year for bonding because of low interest rates, the same could apply for transportation projects and maybe we shouldn’t discount that suggestion out of hand.

As far as a more comprehensive plan, the first thing we can suggest is to include safety as the prime consideration for future funding and that should take care of a portion of Highway 14 to which the governor said he was committed. We can dicker over the funding over the “corridors of commerce” later.

House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, reacting to Dayton’s assertion that the gas tax had little public support, reportedly said he does not know whether that is true. But, he said, the state’s residents do want safe infrastructure and road repairs to happen. And we’re smart enough to know this can’t happen without adequate funding.