Transportation issues on tap this session

Lawmakers agree that action is needed regarding transportation repair issues.

by Kevin Beckman

With billions of dollars needed to repair the state’s highways and bridges over the next 20 years, lawmakers are expressing optimism that the state’s leaders will create a plan of action this session.
As state House and Senate members are faced with increased funding shortfalls to repair roads and bridges, leaders have reached a consensus that the issue needs to be addressed during the Legislature’s shorter-than-usual session. But legislators disagree with how to pay for the much-needed repairs. 
“I’m more optimistic than pessimistic,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee. “It just feels like there’s still a lot of momentum and a lot of priority being placed on this subject.” 
Minnesota’s transportation system — the fifth-largest in the nation — will experience an estimated $16.3 billion funding shortfall for road and bridge improvements over the next 20 years, according to a Minnesota Department of Transportation press release. Half the state’s highways and more than a third of state bridges are more than 50 years old, the press release said. 
Both House and Senate transportation committees met on Feb. 15 to discuss the need for agreement on long-term transportation funding. Senate Majority leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, have both previously said a long-term transportation bill is one of their top priorities this session, which begins next week.
“There’s huge conversation about this around the state, and I think that both caucuses believe that something has to happen this year,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, a House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee member. 
But the meeting demonstrated just how far apart the transportation plans put forth by the Republican-controlled House and DFL-controlled Senate are.
The House plan would raise $7 billion for roads and bridges over the next 10 years by redirecting motor vehicle-related tax revenue away from the state’s General Fund, identifying efficiencies in the MnDOT budget and utilizing some of the state’s projected budget surplus.  
On the Senate side, Dibble said the DFL-backed plan proposes to raise about $11 billion for roads, bridges and transit over the next 10 years by instituting a new gas tax and expanding a metro area transit-dedicated sales tax from one-quarter of a cent to one cent.
Republicans in both chambers have insisted that no new taxes should be used to pay for transportation infrastructure. 
And with elections this year, Hausman said she’s not hopeful there will be an increase in any sort of taxes, especially a gas tax. 
“Just being realistic, I don’t see how that happens in an election year,” she said. 
Despite the gap that exists between the two plans, Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said there’s reason to be more optimistic about a consensus being reached this session than there was last year, now that both the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton have laid out plans. 
“We have a lot better sense now of where the Legislature is at on this issue,” Donahoe said. “Some people thought that mainly they just sort of ran out of time last session.” 
Dibble said the outcome could depend largely on what happens with other major issues this session, such as tax policy and bonding. 
“All of this is going to be kind of blended in together,” Dibble said. “The transportation bill may well hinge on our ability to cut larger deals.” 
Either way, MnDOT commissioner Charles Zelle said the state’s ability to fix its roads and bridges could be weakened if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement this session. He said that transportation funding shortfalls will only increase without an agreement this year. 
The more the state delays action, the more expensive repair projects become because problems get worse the longer they’re ignored, said Todd Klingel, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve got to make some progress. … They’re kicking it literally down the broken road,” he said. “Both sides … know they need to do it. Now, they just have to figure out
how to make the right compromises to get it done.”