Transportation falls farther behind

The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced the start of its 2016 road construction season Thursday. The DOT is undertaking 246 state road and bridge projects. That, according to MnDOT, is 44 projects and $70 million less in funding than in 2015.

We don’t think the drop in the number of projects is because there are only 246 projects that need to be done, or that the amount being spent is all that the state needs to spend on transportation.

Every year MnDOT?looks through its growing list of work to do, and looks at the money it has to do the work, and picks out the projects it can afford to do. At current funding levels, the state is looking at maintaining the system, with a few projects that expand or improve.

Last year, before the 2015 legislative session, everyone – Republicans and DFLers in the House and Senate, and Governor Mark Dayton agreed that the state needs to commit billions more over the next ten years to have a modern, competitive system of roads and bridges. When the DFL?and Republicans couldn’t agree on how exactly how much was needed, or how to raise the funds, they agreed to do nothing except pass a “status quo” bill that keeps the state locked in the maintenance mode over the next ten years.

At the beginning of the current session, everyone again was saying transportation needs to be addressed, but the political battle lines have not moved since the end of the last session. Democrats, including the governor, are proposing a program to bring new money into transportation through increased fuel taxes and user fees, while Republicans want to use surplus fund and divert some general fund revenues, like sales tax on auto parts, to transportation.

If the outcome this year is the same as last year, MnDOT?is looking for a 45 percent shortfall in funds for transportation projects in 2018, which it says would curtail its ability to fund preservation of roads and bridges, and leave nothing for expansion projects, like Highway 14.

This is an important issue, one that will hit Minnesota harder in the pocketbook in years to come if it is not addressed now. Projects that are put off now will cost more in the future due to inflation in construction and material costs. Road projects that have to wait often turn from resurfacing projects to reconstruction.

And, good roads that meet the economic needs of the state make the state’s businesses more competitive.

The fiscally responsible thing for the state to do is to spend money now for transportation rather than wait and spend a lot more in the future.