At the end for the roads

MARSHALL – Crumbling roads, subpar bridges, potholes. No one can argue things have reached a critical state when it comes to Minnesota’s road infrastructure, and a Minnesota group says now is the time to do something about it.

Move MN is a coalition of more than 175 organizations, associations and businesses dedicated to making transportation a priority in 2014. Its latest proposal to address transportation issues in the state supports a leased vehicle sales tax, a sales tax on wholesale fuel and allocating flexible federal funding for bike-pedestrian connections. The wholesale fuel sales tax, Move MN says, would also ensure transportation funding keeps up with inflation, which is important considering the cost of road and bridge construction in Minnesota is higher than the national average. According to Move MN, construction costs have increased by 70 percent since 2004. Almost two dozen states currently have a sales tax on fuel or a tax on fuel suppliers.

Move MN, which is planning a rally at the state Capitol on Thursday, is also proposing increasing the current metro sales tax to 1 cent, applying the sales tax in all seven counties and using a small portion of the tax to fund safe and accessible bike and pedestrian connections in the metro. The seven-county sales tax for transit would become 1 cent and would generate up to $335 million in new revenue annually, Move MN said.

Minnesota has 140,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges that are behind in repairs and upgrades. The most recent federal National Bridge Inventory rated 33 Minnesota bridges as “fracture critical and structurally deficient.”

“We know from MnDOT that over half of Minnesota roads that are paved are more than 50 years old,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. “And they’re really only designed for that long. We are sort of at a point where a lot of our infrastructure built in the ’60s and ’70s has gotten to the end of its life.”

Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, both DFLers from Minneapolis, have introduced a transportation finance bill (SF2107/HF2395) in an effort to create sustainable, dedicated funding for roads, bridges, transit, and biking and walking infrastructure.

Move MN says the state’s current budget surplus provides the opportunity to close the leased vehicle sales tax loophole and make critical investments in transportation. Move MN proposes dedicating all of the leased vehicle sales tax to highway and transit funding. Doing so, it says, would provide $32 million in new transportation funding without raising taxes. Move MN believes a commitment of $250 million per year in trunk highway bonds for the next four years will address the state’s unsafe roads and congested highways.

Move MN also wants a new 5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel. Unlike the per-gallon fuel tax, the wholesale fuel sales tax, also known as gross receipts, will generate additional transportation funding as the price of fuel increases. Minnesota’s current gas tax would remain the same. The new sales tax would be administered at the wholesale level and is projected to raise more than $360 million annually in new transportation funding.

“We have counties in the metro area that say they are lucky if they can totally reconstruct a road once a century, and what happens is we have a lot of degradation – not just at the surface but at the base, too,” Donahoe said. “So we have more and more roads that really need to be reconstructed instead of just getting an overlay, and that takes additional funding. And in greater Minnesota, you’ve got a lot more heavy agriculture equipment, big trucks, a lot of freight movement going on. That really has a big impact on pavements, so people are really seeing the potholes and it’s hitting them in the pocketbook.”

“We think the fact that the Legislature is looking at infrastructure through the capital bonding bill shows that they’re concerned about the state’s assets,” said Abbey Bryduck from the Association of Minnesota Counties. “People don’t realize how much of the state’s assets are tied up in roads and bridges. More legislators and the governor need to hear from people about potholes and the need out there for better transportation.”

District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski doesn’t foresee an increase in the gas tax in the near future.

“At this time, I don’t see a tax increase happening,” said Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “Years ago, we didn’t have a gas tax and general fund dollars went to transportation because it was a need. Governor (Mark) Dayton spoke a little about using some of the surplus, but we have so much growth in other areas of the budget; we need to see what we need to do to become more efficient across the board.”

Move MN would also like to see money invested in bike and pedestrian infrastructure throughout Minnesota. With more than 70 communities working on a Safe Routes to Schools plan and another 40 in the planning process for SRTS, Move MN is stressing the need for the state to devote dollars toward this brand of infrastructure.

“A lot of regions have a real opportunity with bike trails and tourism – it’s not only about health and going green, it’s also about safety and economic development,” Bryduck said.

The House will take this issue up March 19.