Fix roads and bridges before cutting taxes

Published 9:40 am Wednesday, December 9, 2015

With a projected $1.87 billion surplus in the state treasury and all 201 Minnesota legislative seats up for election in 2016, a tax cut seems all but inevitable.

Yes, putting more money in the pockets of Minnesota citizens would be a politically popular move, especially in an election year, but would it be fiscally prudent while our state’s transportation system continues to fall behind with needed maintenance and upgrades?

We don’t think so.

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One of the broken promises of the last legislative session was to dedicate more funding into roads, bridges and transit infrastructure. Lawmakers began the 2015 session with a nearly identical $1.86 billion surplus with both parties declaring transportation a top priority, yet they couldn’t agree on how to get it done.

Most DFLers have proposed raising the gasoline tax as part of the solution. Republicans have declared the gasoline tax a nonstarter and instead proposed shifting taxes from auto parts, car rentals and motor vehicle leases from the general fund to an account dedicated to roads and bridges. Democrats have opposed the GOP plan because it would divert money from education and health care.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation forecasts the state will face a $7 billion funding shortfall during the next 10 years. And the needs extend far beyond the next decade. The Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan projects a $16.3 billion shortfall through 2033.

Legislators have had the last year — no, make that several years, as the neglect has been mounting for a long time — to reconsider how they will come to an agreement on a transportation bill. We can’t wait any longer.

The grand bargain should go beyond using some of the surplus for roads, bridges and transit. The gasoline tax, which is constitutionally dedicated to transportation, is a diminishing funding source because of inflation and the advent of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles. Legislators have to determine other funding solutions to supplement the gas tax. One idea to consider is a user fee based on miles driven that some states have tested with pilot programs.

We also suggest the surplus be used to restore funding to local government aid, which helps smaller cities that have infrastructure needs greater than what they could reasonably cover in property taxes. That way smaller communities could dedicate part of their LGA allocation to transportation needs not met by state funding.

This isn’t just about smoother rides. Transportation is the public foundation that allows the private sector to thrive. There’s no way that Minnesota — with the sixth-lowest unemployment rate and the 17th-largest state economy in the United States — can continue to compete with crumbling infrastructure. Roads are the arteries of a circulatory system that nourish businesses and schools throughout the state. Not taking care of our transportation needs now is a disservice to the next generation.

Minnesota has the fifth-largest highway system in the United States, with nearly 143,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges. Half of our road pavement is at least 50 years old, and 35 percent of our bridges are half a century old, according to MnDOT.

We have the cash. We know the wear and tear on our roads is accelerating. Putting off repairs will be even more expensive in the future.

What are we waiting for?


— Rochester Post Bulletin, Dec. 7

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