The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 25, 2013

Our View: MnDOT sales mission should be safety first

The Free Press

— Gov. Mark Dayton and MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle have taken a positive step by emphasizing the importance of road funding for the state's economic well being.

Road funding has become a priority for the first time in almost a decade, though Dayton unfortunately seems to have backed off from priming the pump with a preliminary increase in the gas tax. Still, to his credit, he told Zelle to "Go out and make the case."

Zelle's visit with Mankato regional civic leaders showed a real sincerity to make some kind of down payment on this public need. The case for road funding is a no-brainer. Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, know our roads have been underfunded for at least the last 8-10 years.

MnDOT's own goals have not been met in terms of maintenance, expansion or development.

While Zelle asked for leaders' input, the conversation seemed to keep going back to roads for economic development. That's a worthy goal, but it is not the best way to promote road funding.

Those kind of arguments tend to dissipate in regional turf battles. All legislators want more economic development and better roads.

MnDOT should focus on safety first in the battle for more funds. There are plenty of examples of unsafe roads around the state, roads with higher than average accident and fatality rates. MnDOT knows where they are and keeps track of them, though sometimes in a way that is not easily discernible by the general public or even legislators.

Making safety a first priority for roads would not only draw public support for funding, but could draw legislative support across party lines by region. That could even figure into a bonding measure.

Of course, as has been well documented in these pages, Highway 14 from New Ulm to North Mankato would be high on the safety priority list. And the Highway 14 coalition also has pushed for completing the four lane from Owatonna to Dodge Center for economic development purposes.

That's a project that deserves support for a number of reasons.

While MnDOT considers safety in its road funding decisions, it takes an extraordinary public effort (as has been the case with Highway 14) to garner bits of road funding for even the most unsafe roads in the state.

MnDOT could succeed in many of its goals if it made a list of the top 10 most dangerous roads in the state and began with funding requests for those roads. Congestion issues and economic development could follow as solid arguments for more funding.

The public would be able to grasp the idea for supporting a funding increase for safety than vague economic development plans.

MnDOT should take the road to safety in its arguments for more funding.