Move forward by funding transportation

The state of Minnesota is behind on transportation funding, and it’s time for us to catch up.

Chris Iverson

Once it becomes bearable enough to actually go outside, take a quick stroll down your street. What do you notice? Is the street properly paved, without huge cracks or potholes? Is the lane paint still visible? Can you easily follow bike lanes? In general, does your street look like you could safely travel on it?

If the answer is no, well, you’re probably in Minnesota.

Of course, compared to other less-developed parts of the world, the quality of Minnesota’s roads might seem fit for kings. However, compared to its interstate rivals and national transportation quality standards, Minnesota is falling dramatically behind. Poor transportation can be a silent killer for any economy — and for road users. So, in order to stay on track, the state needs to fund road maintenance.

What’s standing in the way? Well, the usual culprits are at work: history, politics and cost. Minnesotans built our current transportation system during the post-World War II boom era, when a healthy economy and a national trend to push toward the suburbs fueled demand for new, clean pavement-covered roads. Our forefathers created the freeway system in the 1950s with a 50- to 70-year life span in mind.

Now in the present day, we have a sprawl-based transportation system with our parents’ generation’s design. The big problem is that it contains millions of paved road miles and few ways to maintain it. On another hand, our local representatives are inept on transportation funding, regardless of party affiliation.

After the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007, it became clear that the state needed more state-level transportation funding to keep Minnesotans safe. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have funded $6.6 billion in road, bridge and transit projects over a decade. Luckily, the state Legislature overruled his veto and passed a modified transportation bill in the 11th hour.  Last year, after a hopeful beginning, Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include a half-cent sales tax in his final state budget that would have brought in $250 million per year to fund transit projects and operations.

Politics is certainly a hard game, and it’s tricky to please the masses, but in both circumstances, transportation funding fell by the wayside.

If we follow a similar path, transportation in the future is only going to become more expensive, making available funding now even more important. Due to the increasing cost of construction resources like oil and steel, road project prices have skyrocketed 70 percent since 2004. Partially because of this increase, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is predicting a $12 billion shortfall in the next 20 years to properly maintain existing roads, if the current funding patterns stay in place.

The combination of politics, history and cost are certainly tricky to combat. The fact that modes of transportation have historically split advocacy groups — bikers supporting bike projects, bus riders supporting transit, etc. — hasn’t helped the cause either.

Luckily, it seems that some forces have joined to fight for full transportation funding, with vehicles, transit, bikers and pedestrians all in mind. Move MN, a diverse coalition supporting transportation at the state Capitol, has been lobbying to increase some taxes in areas to ensure that the government maintains the existing system. Last week, the group announced a plan seeking to add $700 million per year through increases in the statewide gas tax and a metro area sales tax. Though this will be a hardy task to push during a major election year, the fact that a group effort sees a need for transportation funding is promising.

Although Move MN and other transportation supporters’ work is promising, I can’t help but notice that funding isn’t going to the right places. Our forefathers based their system around the politics, history and cost of the day. In 1954, when the political environment sought to expand outward and construction cost was relatively low, a gallon of gasoline cost about 23 cents.

About six decades later, political and social trends are aiming toward urban cores as retiring baby boomers and upstarting millennials are tending to drive less and live closer to amenities. A system built in 1954 is not well-suited for the city’s needs in 2014.

If we want to truly invest in transportation, we need to start thinking regionally instead of statewide. Rural transportation needs are different than urban ones, and any push for funding should advocate appropriately. Whereas Minneapolitans might not care about freeways as much as farmers do, those same farmers probably don’t care about a student’s ride on the Route 3 bus.

To separate interests, Move MN needs to ensure that the state provides road and transit funding where Minnesotans most need it, such as in rural areas and urban centers, respectively.

Minnesota is falling behind in transportation funding. If it makes the right decisions now, we can get ourselves back on the trail and continue pedaling forward.