With an extra $1.2 billion in Minnesota's state budget forecast through 2017, supporters of increased transportation funding say the time has never been better to ramp up improvements to roads, bridges, trails and mass transit across the state.
On Thursday the statewide Transportation Forward coalition held a media event to ask state lawmakers to use part of that budget surplus on transportation but also increase long-term transportation funding by raising the state's gas tax and hiking fees charged to renew license tabs.
Half of the state's roads are in poor or worse condition, the coalition notes, and hundreds of bridges are deficient at a time when gas taxes revenue is declining and the backlog of work gets bigger.
Lawmakers will start work at the Capitol on March 8 and both Republicans and DFLers say they will propose transportation funding packages.
"It's time to fix our transportation system,'' said Dave Van Hattum, chairman of Transportation Forward. "Transportation is really the foundation of a strong economy'' and of local communities.
The event was held at the downtown Duluth Transit Center, which still has that new-paint smell. The center was funded with state and federal dollars to help coordinate Duluth mass transit services. The $30 million facility opened last month.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson praised state and federal funding for the new center but said ongoing funding is needed to keep mass transit serving all people, to fix roads and build new trails for pedestrians and bicyclists.
"We know that transportation makes a difference'' in people's lives, Larson said, adding that the money spent on the projects also "puts people to work."
Transportation Forward includes labor unions and businesses as well as environmental, bicycle advocacy, senior citizen, disability and even religious groups - 50 in all - which support increased funding to improve and expand transportation systems.
Dennis Jensen, general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority, said the new downtown center was critical to the ongoing success of the Twin Ports bus system. But he reminded lawmakers that buses still need to drive on roads and bridges, and that better roads and bridges make for better mass transit systems and longer-lasting buses.
Mass transit will become increasingly important, Jensen noted, as the baby-boom generation ages, choosing to drive their own cars less often, and for the millennial generation which already is choosing to drive less and ride more on buses and bikes.
The coalition also supports increased funding for designated bike routes and trails. Supporters said relatively small investments can pay off, such as creating bike lanes on London Road which encouraged bike ridership there to double. That's good for public health, good for the environment and good for the city's economy, said Shawna Mullen Eardley of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.