In his State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Tim Walz challenged us to write a new story — an inspiring call for bipartisanship, and an opportunity for Minnesota to prove that we do things differently (and better) here.
I’ve heard other stories from Minnesotans lately. Sandra recently wrote to me to share her fears about driving on poor roads and her belief that we all share in the duty of maintaining our streets and highways. Marshall and Marilyn, an elderly couple, visited the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) office in St. Paul last week to express their concern about the condition of a bridge. And then I talked with Jennie, whose daughter was suddenly confronted with a $900 car repair because of a pothole.
Stories of tough roads, concerned Minnesotans and unexpected car repairs are all too common — because we’ve underfunded Minnesota’s transportation system for a long time. On that fact, Republicans and Democrats all agree.
In 2018, there was an overall statewide increase of roads in “poor” condition to more than 500 miles. Within the next four years, more than 200 more miles in Minnesota are expected to decrease from “good” condition. These conditions are not for lack of effort. Since becoming MnDOT’s commissioner four months ago, I’ve been consistently impressed by the passion and dedication the department’s employees have for delivering a safe, high-quality transportation system, and for doing so in a fiscally responsible way.
It costs more money to maintain quality roads and bridges in Minnesota than just about anywhere else in the country. While we’re all proud of our hardiness during rough winter weather, that same weather takes a pretty serious toll on our roads. Minnesota also has the fifth-highest amount of lane miles in the U.S., yet we currently spend 15 % less than the national average on our transportation system.
In a nutshell? Minnesota has harsher weather and more roads and spends less on transportation than most other states. We’ve tried the “do more with less” approach, and it isn’t working.
That’s why Gov. Walz has proposed a transportation budget that looks to the future and honestly addresses MnDOT’s long-term needs. The goal is not to raise taxes for the sake of raising a tax. Rather, our focus is on giving Minnesotans what they want and deserve: a reliable, safe, modern and efficient transportation system. Achieving that goal will require additional funds.
The need is real, urgent and serious — so how should we fund transportation for the future? Instead of waiting for problems to become crises before addressing them, we should dedicate more transportation funding through gas taxes, tab fees and the motor vehicle sales tax. This way, roads and bridges won’t take vital resources away from other budget priorities, like our K-12 and higher education systems, nursing home residents and workers, or people with disabilities.
MnDOT projects an $18 billion funding gap over the next 20 years. That funding gap means that hundreds of projects will struggle to find funding. Critical safety improvements such as congestion management on Hwy. 65 in Anoka County, or adding MnPass lanes to Hwy. 36 in Roseville and Hwy. 169 from Scott County will be delayed. MnDOT won’t have the resources to repair bridges over Interstate 94 in the east metro, improve traffic flow on I-494 and Hwy. 77 or replace the deteriorating Blatnik Bridge in Duluth … and the list goes on and on.
Without additional constitutionally dedicated funding for roads and bridges (yes, Article 14 of the state Constitution guarantees that revenue from the gas tax goes to roads and bridges only), we’ll also have less money to share with counties, cities and towns — meaning they will likely be forced to pass costs onto residents in the form of property taxes. Forty percent of the money raised by the gas tax goes back to local communities to support local road systems and help alleviate that burden.
Along with the governor, I am committed to working with our Legislature to find a solution that dedicates more funding to our roads and bridges before this year’s legislative session ends. I know that we’re asking Minnesotans to pay more — not something done lightly. But I can assure you of one thing: The longer we wait to invest in our roads and bridges, the more expensive the projects will get, and the more likely you’ll be the next person who has to spend hundreds of dollars in car repairs.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Fully funding our transportation system now will save you precious time and money in the long run. I am optimistic that the next chapter in our uniquely Minnesotan story is one that includes far fewer potholes, safer roads and a truly world-class, multimodal transportation system that Sandra, Marshall, Marilyn, Jennie and all Minnesotans can be proud of.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. She previously served six terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, including four years as speaker (2007 to 2011).