SOUTHERN MINNESOTA - With the passage of a "status quo" Transportation Omnibus bill at the end of the Minnesota Legislature's session, advocates for the Highway 14 four-lane expansion project faced a mix of strong disappointment and hope for the future.
There is no direct funding or progress for Highway 14 into 2014. This end result is a sharp contrast from the deluge of Highway 14 specific bills that filled the first months of the session.
One bright spot for greater Minnesota transportation advocates and Highway 14 advocates was the passage of the "Corridors of Commerce" program. It targets funding for highway corridor projects that boost economic development for its region. The program differs from the Minnesota Department of Transportation's (MnDOT) CIMS program by not requiring an application or grant process. Instead, the project targets are left at the MnDOT commissioner's discretion. The guidelines call for projects being outside the metro areas and containing a few targeted improvement types, such as upgrading to a divided highway or building a needed interchange.
Highway 14's four-lane expansion is the mostly likely project to benefit from the program, especially because the program's authors held it up as the prime example of the program's intent in committee hearings.
Minnesota House Transportation Finance Chair Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL - Minneapolis), the author of the program, said it was the hard work of the Highway 14 Partnership and similar groups that ensured the program was passed.
Highway 14 advocates point to the four-lane expansion project as a key solution to growing commerce in the region, particularly due to the concentration of trucking out of New Ulm. Expansion is also considered an essential step to end the dangerous layout of the highway's two-lane segments, which pushed the fatal crash rate up to three times the state average.
However, there was a major problem with program's passage - no accompany funding mechanism for the program was passed. The committees that worked on the program repeatedly tried to draw up a state gas tax increase to directly fund the program, but Gov. Mark Dayton's adamant opposition ended up stripping the proposal out. Dayton argued there was no support among Minnesotans for a gas tax hike.
The transportation bill that included the "Corridors" program also contained a few funding items. It authorized $300 million in bonding to start in July of 2014, a $10 annual wheelage tax and options for counties to pass a half-cent sales tax for funding transportation projects. Hornstein called the elements a "down payment" for the "Corridors" program that fell far short of the $1 billion the gas tax would have generated.
Highway 14 Partnership lobbyist Amanda Duerr said the group is pleased with "Corridors" and the funding it can provides. But, she said there a lot more is needed to reach their goal.
Going forward, Dayton must direct the MnDOT commissioner to lead a statewide tour until next session to determine what package of non-gas tax alternate transportation funding source would generate strong public support. He said he envisions a campaign similar to the Legacy Amendment passage.
Hornstein said he will fully help support Dayton's idea, but he doubts alternative sources will prove sufficient because they came up short after repeated vetting. He said the gas tax is the "workhorse" funding source that has repeatedly proven able to at least come close to funding transportation.
He considers his work this session simply on a long recess and hopes 2014 will be the "infrastructure session" where the transportation and bonding work will be resolved.
"This year as a disappointment," said Hornstein, "But, I believe we can get more done next year."
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)