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Our view: Transportation gets fast track in St. Paul

Which moves faster, Minnesota motorists puttering along on the state's deteriorating patchwork of highways or a legislative attempt to finally get them fixed?...

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Which moves faster, Minnesota motorists puttering along on the state's deteriorating patchwork of highways or a legislative attempt to finally get them fixed?

Given the usual pace of government, the answer emerging from the first three days of the Minnesota Legislature's 2008 session is a surprise: The checkered flag goes to the lawmakers, who ushered their transportation bill through four preliminary steps in less time than it takes to go round trip from Grand Portage to Pipestone ... at the speed limit.

With memories painfully fresh of the tragic Interstate 35W bridge collapse in August, the $2.2 billion package cleared the House Transportation Finance Division, the House Capital Investment Finance Division, the House Finance Committee, and the Senate Transportation Budget and Policy Division. The bill has another two committee dates early next week.

At that rate, a promise by House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm to get the bill passed within the first six weeks seems remarkably doable.

The bill includes an immediate 2-cent gas tax increase and another 3-cent hike in the fall. Future increases would be adjusted annually for inflation. The $2.2 billion in bonding over the next decade for road and bridge repairs includes $500 million in each of the next two years. Also included is an increase in tab fees on newly bought vehicles and a half-cent sales tax increase in the Twin Cities for transit.

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The fast-moving bill isn't without its caution flag-waving critics, of course. The Minnesota Chamber, for one, opposes indexing the gas tax to the consumer price index because the tax would increase automatically without votes of the Legislature. The chamber also opposes the half-cent Twin Cities sales tax because businesses would wind up shouldering nearly half of it.

"We want to see progress made this session, but we're also very sensitive to the price tag, especially with the economy taking a downturn," the chamber's Jim Pumarlo told the News Tribune editorial page yesterday.

And of course the biggest hurdle remains in the corner office of the Statehouse, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty has at the ready his "taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen," as he termed it Wednesday in his State of the State speech. The Republican governor specifically warned the DFL-dominated Legislature against tampering with his far more modest transportation bill by packing it with "less important projects."

That battle may be inevitable, but if it is, at least the two sides will be able to get going at it in March instead of the session's closing days in May. It should be smooth pavement by then.

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