Guest Column: Many tansportation funding challenges still exist

Published 9:38 am Monday, October 24, 2016

By Charlie Zelle

Charlie Zelle is the Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner.

The 2016 road construction season is fast coming to a close and come November, Minnesotans are facing a choice of who will champion increased funding for transportation. During the campaign season, everyone seems to support transportation as an issue.  However, as you consider who to vote for in November, demand that candidates for public office get specific on how they would fund it.

Charlie Zelle

Charlie Zelle

The Minnesota Department of Transportation as well as city and counties have been working hard this past summer to repair and improve roadways across the state in an effort to provide safe and reliable trips.

That work has poured millions of dollars into jobs and materials used for the projects. Every corner of the state has benefitted economically and seen improvements in local transportation systems.

However, as we look to the future, the coming years will not shine so brightly.

MnDOT’s road construction funding will drop by almost 30 percent next year. Projections today show a total of $711 million for state road construction work. This year, we spent more than $1 billion. Funding for District 6, which covers the southeastern corner of the state will drop nearly 70 percent next year. And our long-term transportation needs continue to grow as MnDOT projects an increasing $18 billion gap between projected resources and what it takes to build and maintain an economically competitive system over the next 20 years.   

Counties and cities, without an increase in state funding, are forced to either raise property taxes or cut essential services like police and fire protection just to keep pace with crumbling local roads and bridges. 

2017 is shaping up to be a make or break year for the legislature to finally pass a long-term transportation funding package. Constitutionally dedicated sources of funding for transportation are limited and include raising the gas tax, license tabs and motor vehicle sales tax.  Non-dedicated sources such as using the state general fund force trade-offs between other priorities such as education, nursing homes and the environment. 

At MnDOT, we’ve worked hard to tell the transportation story over the last three years, and have pointed out that this significant drop in funding was on the horizon. While there has been near universal agreement that something must be done to right the transportation funding problem, no clear path has been found to a solution.   

We do know this — if we do not  provide more dedicated funds for roads and bridges either at the pump, when we buy or license a vehicle or locally through taxes, the only alternative is to live with a continually degrading transportation system. 

If we continue to delay a solution to the funding issue, we will find that the cost of working our way back to a strong and vital transportation system will grow exponentially. Every dollar we spend now to preserve the system as it ages saves the state $8 dollars if/when we fully reconstruct a dilapidated infrastructure. An inefficient transportation system is an under-capitalized system.  If we do not invest more resources now, the results will include worn out inefficient roads, failing bridges and a lack of productivity through increased congestion. 

It is time for our state legislature to make the decisions necessary to ensure a long-term and sustainable transportation funding solution. We need to invest in the future with a long-term vision. That is what the public expects us to do. Again, challenge those running for office to get specific on how they would fund transportation next year. 

Minnesotans can no longer afford legislative paralysis.