Funding a challenge for roads

MARSHALL – Southwest Minnesota residents are likely already aware of the impact that transportation infrastructure, like roads, bridges and railways has on area businesses. It’s a good reason for Minnesotans to consider investing in the state’s transportation systems, Charles Zelle said.

“Transportation is really about the parts of Minnesota we truly care about,” Zelle said. “It’s really about our communities’ livability,” in addition to commerce, he said.

Zelle, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, was in Marshall on Friday, speaking before an audience of area residents, including businesspeople, local officials, and members of the Marshall Area Transportation Group. Area legislators Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, were also present.

Zelle has been traveling around Minnesota, discussing the need to invest in transportation in the state. A strong transportation system, Zelle said, “Is a vital part of what keeps communities thriving.” Transportation infrastructure from roads to rail lines and airports makes it possible to move freight and get people where they need to go, he said.

However, the costs of maintaining and improving that system are projected to outpace available funding. Gov. Mark Dayton’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee estimates that during the next 20 years, there will be a $50 billion gap between available funding and what is needed to grow, improve and maintain transportation infrastructure.

Zelle said the $50 billion figure covered all modes of transportation in the state. For roads and bridges alone, the gap would be closer to $12 billion. Of that $12 billion, he said, $5 billion would represent the cost to maintain and repair existing roads and bridges.

Part of the challenge in paying for highway maintenance and development is the state’s current transportation funding model. The gas tax has remained at a constant level, while vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, Zelle said. If that trend continues into the future, revenue will continue to decline. Uncertainties in receiving federal transportation funding also factor into the challenges Minnesota will face in the future, Zelle said. All those factors pointed toward the need for more revenue, whether from a gas tax increase or other methods.

There have been some positive developments for Minnesota roads and bridges, Zelle said. In the 2013 Legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers allocated $300 million to the Corridors of Commerce grant program.

The program grants funding to projects on transportation routes identified as interregional corridors vital to economic growth. However, Zelle said that $300 million was only a step toward a bigger vision for state transportation systems.

Zelle said the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s vision is to maintain a robust, multimodal transport system, that can help maximize the health of communities in the state. A major focus in that vision is development and maintenance of interregional corridors. In order for transportation expansion to have a good return on investment, he said, “It has to be more than one corridor.”

Some key parts of the bigger vision for MnDOT include the critical connections around the state, but also sustainable funding and maintaining current infrastructure.

“We have to take care of the system we have,” Zelle said, and that comes with its own costs. Zelle said MnDOT was also focusing on using more efficient practices, like pursuing local partnerships and more efficient lighting and construction methods.

In response to a question from the audience, Zelle said there may be alternatives to increasing the gas tax.

“There are other options, but it’s more likely a menu of options,” rather than any single solution, he said. Zelle said he has been researching funding methods used by other states, ranging from sales taxes to registration fees, tolls, or even mileage-based user fees.

Zelle said 2014 will be an important year for transportation in Minnesota, as conversations continue on transportation issues, and the need for increased investment in transportation.

Getting support for increased funding can be a challenge, he said, but improving transportation is an issue that has drawn some bipartisan support from legislators.