What’s Going On: Trying to win a rigged game

For one day this last week, newspapers throughout Minnesota perfectly mimicked each other with a variation of the exact same headline:

“MnDOT ignores Highway (fill in the blank) corridor.”

Here in New Ulm, the blank read “14” in relation to funding requests to expand the two-lane highway to four between Nicollet and New Ulm.

And yet, in a chorus echoed throughout Minnesota, those requests along with nearly 200 others were disregarded, ignored, or whatever by officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation who awarded $450 million to highway projects exclusive to the metro area.

The funds were made possible by the Corridors of Commerce program, created by the Minnesota legislature in 2013, using bond sales to finance it.

The program’s purpose was to provide “transportation infrastructure improvements that remove traffic bottlenecks, improve the movement of freight, and reduce barriers to commerce,” according to MnDOT.

And since the program’s creation, nearly $750 million has been spent doing just that.

By design, more than half of that $750 million ($396 million) has been spent in the “Greater Minnesota” region with the remainder ($352 million) spent in the defined “Metro Area.”

Last week’s announcement stayed within that framework, with two of the projects technically housed in the metro area and the other two in the “Greater Minnesota” area.

Regrettably though, those Greater Minnesota areas aren’t exactly in rural locations as both are in the northwest corner of the Twin Cities region, or about 40 miles from US Bank Stadium.

So while technically, those projects may fall out of the 8-county area deemed to be the “Metro Area,” they are close enough to give the impression MnDOT has ignored rural Minnesota and opted to spend all these funds in the Twin Cities.

MnDOT Director Charlie Zelle has been defending this decision by accurately pointing out all 172 projects were graded and scored by the same criteria and that these four were the ones selected. Minnesota’s Legislature essentially designed the scoring/grading method and revised it in 2016.

And there’s the problem. Zelle and MnDOT didn’t break the rules of the game. The problem is the game is rigged.

Whether it’s the shell game or three-card monte, there are certain games you are designed to lose. In fact, calling them games is a stretch. They are more like scams.

Sure, it looks easy to follow the shell with the hidden ball under it. You won’t have any problem picking it out. But once you put money on the table, the shell disappears every single time because the guy operating the game has it rigged so you won’t win.

It’s the same situation with MnDOT and the Corridors of Commerce Program.

This is a game created by the legislature, with rules created by the legislature, that everyone is invited to participate in. But those same objective rules are going to be weighted to heavier populated areas.

They will have the higher traffic counts and economic opportunities associated with denser populated areas that will always weight the scores towards metro projects.

Towns like New Ulm can’t win and aren’t supposed to.

Metro areas are where the dollars, the people, and the legislators are. They are going to win every time, and its probably a fight not worth fighting.

What the New Ulms of the world will have to realize and accept is this isn’t a level playing field. As such, we have to play the game differently.

When I lived in Missouri, I heard this exact same complaint from rural residents. All the transportation dollars were spent in St. Louis and Kansas City, with a smattering of it sent to the tourist-laden Ozarks. The rest of the state was on its own.

So instead of waiting for the state to fund their highway projects like they should, local leaders decided to play the game differently. They formed coalitions and started levying local sales taxes earmarked for highway improvements.

Suddenly armed with millions of dollars in matching funds, they were then able to successfully lobby the state to spend a few dollars outside of the metro area. It seemed unfair to be taxed essentially twice for the same highway, once locally and once at the state level, but residents didn’t care. Those highway improvements were important enough for their personal safety and the community’s vitality they were willing to foot the bill.

According to MnDOT, it would have taken more than $5 billion to fund all 172 submitted projects, or about 13 times as much money as was available.

We will never see a state budget that includes that kind of money for new projects. And quite frankly, considering how high taxes already are in this state, we probably don’t want to.

So that leaves two options: we can either sit and wait for the funding fairy to wave a magic wand and give us all the money we need, or we can truly take ownership of the project and try and control its destiny ourselves.

Complain all you want about the game and how it’s unfair. No kidding. That’s life. If you don’t like it, change it.