The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 27, 2013

Legislators need to listen on transportation

Why it matters Progress on transportation funding in Minnesota has fallen behind and is costing taxpayers

The Mankato Free Press

---- — When you listen to transportation experts appointed by governors from both parties, you get the same story.

Minnesota’s transportation system is grossly underfunded. Roads are deteriorating at a rate beyond our own standards set and ostensibly approved by august bodies of both parties of both houses —for too long.

Yet, it is a story some legislators appear unwilling to listen to, much less do anything about.

Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle, former CEO of Jefferson Lines and current chairman of the board, is the latest in a line of transportation commissioners to point out Minnesota’s current stream of transportation funding doesn’t meet even the most basic needs of preserving our road pavements, much less being available for expansions that are no-brainer economic development engines.

So we seem to muddle along. It used to be Democrats and Republicans would easily pass transportation funding. Then it got a little harder for both parties to join together under the administration of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was overridden in his veto of a gas tax increase by Democrats and a half dozen Republicans.

Last year, Gov. Dayton’s bipartisan Transportation Finance Advisory Commission recommended increasing the gas tax to fund basic transportation needs. Democrats who chair both House and Senate transportation committees proposed increasing the gas tax. Dayton balked for one reason or another. It seemed political at the time. He said the public didn’t support it. He wasn’t going to be on record for raising the gas tax and he wanted MnDOT and the committee to come up with a more visionary and strategic plan.

Fair enough. Commissioner Zelle and MnDOT have done that. Now, it’s time for Democrats and Republicans to examine the plan, modify if they will, but make sure transportation needs get funded, one way or another. Maybe it’s a little more borrowing. Maybe we change the criteria for pavements a bit to reduce the need, and maybe we find more innovative ways to fund transportation, like a sales tax imposed at the wholesale level or indexing the current gas tax.

Zelle would also say listen to the business argument. He says filling our funding gap of $12 billion over the next 20 years -- we have $30 billion in needs, but only $18 billion in our current funding stream -- would bring in $31 billion in direct benefits in less congestion, and less time for commuters waiting in traffic jams, for example.

But again, there appears to be a political problem. Zelle said he sees Republicans and Democrats favoring increasing gas taxes or fees, but some still unwilling to vote for such increases for political reasons. Dayton’s excuse or reason from last year doesn’t seem to hold. Zelle said he didn’t see a lot of public opposition at the 60 or so town hall meetings he has held on the issue this year.

Almost no one is disagreeing with the math on this one. We can’t find a reason to poke holes in it either. It’s a matter of political will. Republicans have to be willing to jump on board on this one. Democrats have shown their willingness to invest in Minnesota transportation, to invest in Minnesota economic development. Dayton has to get on board as well.

The whole issue of transit is separate. Gas tax doesn’t really go to transit. Light rail is funded by sales taxes in the metro area. Those investments are not unwarranted. Transit keeps highways from getting even more congested.

But now is the time. This is the year. It would be real disservice to Minnesota taxpayers to let this issue languish and cost them even more in the long run because we didn’t fix a road before it got really expensive to fix.

As Zelle told The Free Press Editorial Board on Monday: At some point, legislators have to “look at what’s good for their constituents.”

We think approving some kind of increase in transportation funding saves those constituents from higher costs down the road. It also offers a very high return for taxpayer investment.