With the nation’s only politically divided legislature, chasms in St. Paul this session sometimes have felt insurmountable. But Republicans and DFLers alike seem to agree on this: “We need more transportation funding,” as Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said in an interview Tuesday with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.
“Most folks, I mean almost to a person, everyone I’ve talked to, Republicans and Democrats, have agreed that we need more transportation funding. We clearly are behind in what we’ve been doing,” the commissioner said. “And I think (DFL and Republican lawmakers alike) can find a place where they can meet. I think they can, definitely, because there is agreement about need. … Their constituents will visually see what they’re investing in, and that’s important. I think that leads to a better spot for a compromise.”
The need to responsibly and adequately fund transportation is clear.
From just 2017 to 2018, the number of Minnesota state highways designated as “poor” increased by about 17.5 percent, from 414 miles to 502 miles, according to MnDOT. Without increased funding, another nearly 100 miles are expected to become “poor” in the next four years - “poor” meaning major rehabilitation or reconstruction.
Additionally, a report card put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers last year gave Minnesota’s bridges a grade of C and its roads a D+.
And the gap between Minnesota’s transportation needs and state spending on transportation is $6 billion over the next 10 years, Kelliher said. If spending isn’t increased, she said, the gap will grow to $18 billion.
“As you don’t do stuff it gets more expensive,” the commissioner said. “No matter what comes out of this legislative session, will we get to funding all of the need?”
We will, Kelliher insists, with the transportation funding proposal put forth by DFL Gov. Tim Walz and the DFL-led House. Of course, at the heart of that proposal is the hugely unpopular 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase. A 70 percent jump like that would give Minnesota the fourth-highest gas tax in the nation and make the gas tax in Minnesota 60 percent more expensive, on average, than in neighboring states. That's particularly concerning in a border city like Duluth.
“It’s a user fee. That’s what it is,” Kelliher argued. “It’s a direct user fee. If you drive more miles you are going to pay a little bit more.”
Another way to go was pitched by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce in a sit-down in April with the editorial board. Continue the dedication of all tax revenues from vehicle rentals to transportation needs and increase from 50 percent to 100 percent sales tax revenues from auto parts for transportation, the chamber’s Jim Pumarlo said. That would generate an estimated $300 million a year, the equivalent of a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase.
Compromise surely can be found, as here’s something else both sides agree on: "We need to figure out the state funding for transportation because counties and cities are having to take it on," as Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross said to editorial board members in April, referring specifically to St. Louis County's half-percent transportation sales tax and the city of Duluth's efforts to enact a similar new tax. "The county and the city are having to pick up what the state is not providing."
And that can lead to higher property taxes, as Kelliher echoed, which is a way of paying for highway- and bridge-repair projects that few Minnesotans agree on.