Find bipartisan, long-term state transportation funding

ECM Editorial Board
ECM Publishers Inc.

As the days on the Minnesota Legislature calendar rapidly melt away, the mandatory May 23 session adjournment date has lawmakers under the gun. After the 2015 Legislature failed to pass bills on transportation and taxes, key decisions were passed along to lawmakers this session.

It is high time that progress be made in St. Paul and the ECM Publishers Editorial Board remains convinced that a bipartisan, comprehensive, long-term funding plan with dedicated revenue can be found to address the state’s serious transportation needs. The needs are not small and they will only continue to grow and become more costly to address if the delays continue.

Long-term needs will require $6 billion in funding over the next decade. More than half of the state’s roads are more than 50 years old and 40 percent of bridges in the state are more than 40 years old. That speaks volumes for the need. The $6 billion figure was established by the Transportation Finance Advisory Commission convened in 2012 by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle sums up the situation well, saying the state has reached a “crossroads” in addressing roads, bridges and transit needs. “The state’s foremost experts agree on two things: this problem is real and it cannot be resolved without a major investment,” Zelle says. “But Minnesotans didn’t need a bipartisan panel of experts to tell them what they already know – that our transportation system is in serious disrepair and getting worse. This problem presents us with two simple and starkly different options: invest for the future, or do nothing, and let the problem get much worse.”

We believe lawmakers should choose the former. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

But it is not an easy problem to solve. Democrats and Republicans must find common ground in securing a bipartisan agreement.

Right now the canyon between the rival parties and the governor is wide. That is not to say compromise can’t be found. It must be found.

There are one-time dollars that can be used to address needs. State bonding and dollars from the $900 million budget surplus can jump-start the effort. The real question is how to secure a long-term dedicated funding source for transportation.

Most Republicans are on record opposing any increase in the gas tax. Most Democrats favor a gas tax. Republicans favor utilizing existing general fund dollars for long-term transportation needs. Democrats are protective of how general fund dollars are spent and the impact any shift would have on programs and services.

Democrats could be more flexible on utilizing general fund dollars and Republicans could take a second look at the gas tax. User fees such as vehicle registration (license plate tabs), the gas tax and a sales tax on auto parts should all be on the negotiations table.

Other states have become more proactive. Around the country, 18 states – many with Republican leadership – have increased gasoline taxes to address long-term needs.

Lawmakers are also faced with a critical decision this session on the Southwest Light-Rail project. The state remains in line for federal funding and counties in the metro area have earmarked transit sales tax dollars to the Southwest system from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis. Still lacking, however, is the $135 million state share. A seven-county metro half-cent sales tax proposal remains a priority of this editorial board. Failure by the state to fund its share could kill the project and waste years of planning and expense. It could likely mean the end of light-rail expansion to the northwest metro.

Minnesota’s problem with roads, bridges and transit will get a shot in the arm with a new federal transportation bill that increases federal funds flowing to the state. Now it is up to state lawmakers to do their part.

The days are drawing short for leaders to hammer out a bipartisan compromise that will address long-term transportation needs and neutralize the political blowback on lawmakers that can follow when tough decisions are required. When the curtain falls on May 23, the people of Minnesota should expect and demand that decisions on transportation and taxing are finally made.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. The Isanti County News is part of ECM Publishers Inc.