Editorial: Gas tax alone won’t maintain the roads

Published 9:35 am Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Minnesota’s governors have provided little leadership on transportation funding during the last 25 years.

The state’s gasoline tax has been raised just once in that span — in 2008 after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge that killed 13 people and injured 145 —when the Legislature overrode Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto and passed an 8.5-cent-per-gallon increase. Before that, the last increase was in 1988.

Gov. Mark Dayton opposed a modest 5-cent-per-gallon increase during the 2013 legislative session, which was curious because the Transportation Finance Advisory Committee, which the governor appointed a year earlier, issued a grave warning in its final report: “If the decline in Minnesota’s transportation system is allowed to continue through inaction with regard to funding, irreparable damage may occur to the state’s economy. The consequences of inaction are clear and predictable.”

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Dayton, apparently, is ready to change course again. He has directed Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle to embark on a statewide sales pitch to encourage investment in roads, bridges and transit systems. Zelle brought that pitch to Rochester last week, telling the audience, “We can’t afford to wait.”

We’re heartened that Dayton has reordered his priorities. Minnesota’s 140,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges —the nation’s fifth-largest highway system —are woefully behind in repairs and needed upgrades after years of escalating costs and flat revenues.

Before becoming transportation commissioner, Zelle served on the Transportation Finance Advisory Committee, which called for higher gas taxes and other fees to raise at least $50 billion for roads and transit over the next 20 years.

Zelle is promoting the committee’s recommendations, which include a gas-tax increase of 10 cents per gallon in the first year, followed by 1.5 cent increases in each of the next 19 years. It also called for raising motor vehicle license fees by 10 percent.

We favor increasing the gas tax because the users of our roads and bridges are the ones who pay it, making it less regressive than other excise fees. It’s also constitutionally mandated to “highway purposes,” so legislators can’t divert the revenue to unrelated projects. This is a case where Minnesotans truly get what they pay for.

MnDOT says the average Minnesotan drives 15,000 miles a year and gets 21 miles to a gallon of gas. At the current 28.5-cents-a-gallon state gas tax, the typical driver pays $203 a year for smooth roads and safe bridges.

How much do you pay per year for your twice-weekly latte?

But it’s worth noting that, at some point, we’ll reach a point of diminishing returns with the gasoline tax. As fuel efficiency increases, gas taxes will become a less-dependable funding source. When we’re all getting 30 miles per gallon and paying 50 percent less in gas taxes, we’ll still need good roads.

So Zelle’s tour should be a sounding board for other revenue-raising ideas, such as toll roads and mileage-based user fees, which are being tested in other states. Minnesota also might need to find new ways in which owners of high-mileage hybrids or electric cars will be required to pay a bit more into the state’s highway fund. Until electric cars become hovercrafts, they’ll still be contributing to the wear and tear on our roads.

Raising transportation taxes would be a courageous act in 2014, as Dayton and all members of the Minnesota House are up for election. Nonetheless, the governor should lay out a case to invest in our long-neglected roads and bridges, something his predecessors — and Dayton himself — have consistently failed to do.

— Rochester Post-Bulletin, Sept. 17

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