Dayton’s road and bridge proposal thinks long-term

Published 9:58 am Friday, March 20, 2015

Guest Column by Charlie Zelle

Last week, I spent some time traveling with Gov. Dayton to various parts of the state talking about transportation and the need for long-term and sustainable funding.

Charlie Zelle

Charlie Zelle

This week, I read a column in the Albert Lea Tribune that called into question that need by challenging the validity of the list of 600 projects that are part of the governor’s transportation funding proposal.

Email newsletter signup

And the column suggested that since there is a general fund surplus, general fund dollars should be considered as a solution to the long-term transportation needs for Minnesota.

There is no question that half of the pavement on state roadways is 50 years old. And 40 percent of the bridges managed by the state are that old as well. The pavement and the bridges are the key assets that make up the roadway system in Minnesota, the system that supports Minnesota’s economy and quality of life.

As we have said, time and again, the list of projects is based on MnDOT’s analysis of those assets looking ahead over the next 10 years. We check our pavement conditions on a regular basis, mile by mile. We know the pavement’s age, its quality of ride and its overall condition. And we are able to estimate quite accurately when it likely will need work and what work that will be.

We also have a strong bridge evaluation program, based on regular inspections, that tells us the conditions of those structures, what kind of work they will need to stay viable and when that work needs to be completed.

With that data, we developed the list of projects. Each project on the list is tied to a bridge that will need work, or to a stretch of pavement that will reach the end of its service life in the next decade. It covers 2,200 miles of pavement and 330 bridges.

What we haven’t stressed is that those 600 projects cover the majority of the need, but not all of it. We manage more than 5,000 bridges across the state. And there are more than 4,400 miles of pavement that will reach the end of their service life with in the next 10 years.

The projects we listed are the ones that, by addressing, will provide the greatest benefit for transportation system, and will keep it viable and able to support the state’s economy.

It makes little sense to not involve our local partners over the next 10 years as we address the work we need to do. There could be changes in population, business location, traffic and so on that might make a project on this list less viable and another stretch of road or bridge more critical.

As for general funding for transportation, I understand that 33 states may use some measure of general fund revenue to pay for transportation projects. However, when you add up the amount of general fund money used in those states, and compare it to the total transportation funding, you will find that it equals about 4 percent. Our gap is much greater than 4 percent.

And using some of the general fund surplus is a good idea when there is a surplus. What happens in the years when there is a deficit? In 2000, MnDOT was allocated $282 million in general fund money for state road construction. In 2003, when a deficit loomed over the general fund, $110 million, or about 40 percent, of that funding was taken away. That is not a reliable funding source. General fund revenue is the key funding source for much of what makes state government run. There is a great deal of competition for it. Over the years, the citizens of Minnesota have seen fit to ensure that we have a source of funding just for transportation needs. That is why we now have fuel tax, motor vehicle sales tax and vehicle registration fees dedicated to transportation. What we are seeing now is that those methods need to be adjusted because they are not keeping up with inflation. As a state, we did this because we know that our transportation system is vital to our businesses, our employers and our citizens. Minnesota has already established, constitutionally, that transportation funding is a key strategy for our state that should lie outside of general fund consideration. It’s evident that to fund the transportation funding proposal will require more taxes. And, no one wants to see an increase in taxes. But simple arithmetic tells us that the increasing cost of maintaining the system will require more revenue.

In my travels around the state over the last two years, I’ve heard Minnesotans say that the transportation system needs work, and that the state needs to address the problem and address it soon.

I respect that the proposed solution is large. However, the need is large and continues to grow. The proposal is comprehensive and will ensure that our transportation needs are met for many years. It is a long-term and sustainable answer that will allow us to provide successive generations of Minnesotans with a sound, flexible transportation system that will continue to meet Minnesota’s needs.


Charlie Zelle is a commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.