ST. PAUL - With just eight days left in the Minnesota Legislature session, a compromise 5-cent statewide gas was added and passed with the Minnesota Senate's Transportation Finance Omnibus bill on Friday as a last-ditch effort to produce new transportation funding this session. The sudden addition is also the last chance for direct funding for the Highway 14 four-lane expansion project this session.
The possibility possibility of a gas tax for transportation funding has been rapidly switching on and off bills throughout this session. The Democrat majority has been making a big push this session to overhaul the state transportation system after years of dwindling funding reaching critical levels. Highway 14 has been intricately entwined throughout the whole process as the symbolic figurehead of major highway projects cast aside by MnDOT's funding constraints.
Minnesota House Transportation Finance chair Rep. Frank Hornstein established a "Corridors of Commerce" program that was added to both the Transportation Omnibus bills in both chambers. The program sought to fund up to 20 percent of economy boosting highway corridor development projects with a 7.5-cent per gallon increase in the statewide gas tax. Highway 14 was repeatedly held up in hearings as the prime example of the types of highway projects the program would help.
The problem this session has been that "Corridors of Commerce" faced a very real possibility of being passed without a funding source due to Gov. Mark Dayton's being unwilling to sign a gas tax increase. He said his opposition is due to a strong belief that Minnesota residents oppose a gas tax and his preference for a six-month tour after this session to build a comprehensive package of publicly supported alternate funding source for the transportation system.
Dayton opposition has resulted in various versions of a gas tax being added then pulled from the Transportation Omnibus bill, even up to this week. The 5-cent gas tax increase passed Friday was added as an amendment on the Senate floor debate of the bill. Largely motivated over concerns of only passing a "lights on" transportation bill this year, the gas tax was added in 35-27 vote with all Republicans opposing it.
The 5-cent gas tax will be phased in over four years, with a 2.5-cent increase being introduced this year and another being introduced in 2015. The tax is estimated to raised $1 billion per year.
The Senate transportation bill carrying the 5-cent gas tax will now debated with "lights on" House transportation in Conference Committee to determine a final bill. Hornstein said there is now a high possibility of new funding for transportation making it into the final bill. However, he said there is still a lot of factors to be determined before its finished.
"This is a pivotal week. This is a very important time for people to call their representative about how they feel on the bill," said Hornstein.
Highway 14 advocates are heavily invested in how the gas tax turns out because it is the last legislative action left in this session that could directly fund Highway 14. Since the effort to expand 5Highway 14 to four-lanes has been ongoing for 50 years, advocates have been very anxious about getting direct funding passed this session before next year's elections start to kick in. They have voiced concerns that Highway 14 will once again be passed over for politically expedient reasons once politicians start thinking in terms of elections.
Highway 14 advocates are also pushing hard for direct funding this year to avoid more fatal accidents on the highway. The four-lane expansion has been pushed as a source of economic development in the region, but it has equally been pushed as means to end long running safety problems. Highway 14's high fatal crash rates has caused it to be frequently referred to as "the most dangerous highway in Minnesota." The length of the highway has over 1.5 times the state fatal crash rate and the North Mankato to New Ulm segment has 3 times the state average fatal crash rate.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org