There is probably no tougher nut to crack than that of adequate transportation funding in Minnesota, but there is also nothing more basic to economic prosperity than an efficient and safe transportation system.
So, once again, Minnesota leaders must come up with a way to fund the most critical needs first and at the same time develop a long-term funding solution. The recent report from Gov. Mark Dayton’s Transportation Finance Advisory Group suggested increasing the state gas tax, vehicle registration fees and metro area special sales taxes.
Already, Dayton is backing away from supporting increasing the gas tax, saying it doesn’t have popular or political support.
That may be true, but we can’t think of a fee or funding stream that wouldn’t affect some part of the population while many want better roads, less congestion and more safety. A gas tax is a very straightforward user fee. Those who pay it get the direct benefits from better roads.
Reports on the task force’s recommendations don’t appear to include much about road spending in Minnesota. It seems the so-called $50 billion funding gap between current revenues and needs is almost taken as a given.
Leaders need to ask hard questions about MnDOT’s current spending. Are new bike trails as critical as safe roads and bridges? Or can we encourage biking to reduce road volume? Are the standards for metro congestion appropriate? Does widening a road to reduce congestion only increase the traffic? Is there enough use of light rail and transit to justify the subsidy? Is residential growth planned with roads in mind?
While very few motorists want to drive on a bumpy road, the state and taxpayers may have to accept a higher level of roads that are just in “fair” condition before allocating scare dollars to them. For example, the state’s goal for the number of roads in “good” and “very good” condition is 70 percent. The standard for roads in “poor” or “very poor” is listed at 2 percent. The rest would fall into the “fair” category.
Maybe we need a 60 percent “good” road standard and a 30 percent “fair” road standard and a 10 percent “poor” road standard. Savings on road maintenance might fall more in line with funding. That might allow us to fix the extremely dangerous roads first.
MnDOT notes that even roads considered “poor” are still driveable. They are rated with a quality index that is somewhat subjective. So there may be room to lower state standards and reduce the funding gap with the tradeoff being driving on some roads that may feel more uncomfortable than they once did.
The other big idea might be financing highways with bonds instead of paying as we go. Debt financing of roads can be considered long-term financing of a long-term asset. It’s the same premise we use to fund state buildings, so it’s a logical step for road funding.
Clearly, the road funding needs far exceed revenue streams right now. We have some catching up to do. But if we do it in smart ways, we’ll be able to enhance the taxpayer value of road funding dollars.