Ballot question would set aside money for roads and transit

Metro Transit bus
A Metro Transit bus makes a stop in downtown St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Bob Collins

Currently about half the revenue from the motor vehicle sales tax goes to transportation. The rest goes to the state's general fund. Surveys show Minnesotans favor the change. But a quirk in state voting law could defeat the idea.

If approved, the constitutional change would, for the first time, create a dedicated source of funding for transit. The ballot question asks voters if they approve spending not more than 60 percent of MVST (pronounced M vest) on roads and bridges, and not less than 40 percent on transit.

Transporting development?
Light rail and other forms of transit would get more dedicated funding if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November.
MPR file photo

The constitutional change requires a simple majority to pass. However, constitutional changes are traditionally difficult to achieve, because if you don't vote on the question at all, it's counted as a "no" vote.

David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, says asking voters to bypass the legislature and amend the state Constitution is the only way he knows to inject new dollars into transportation projects.

"We've actually given up in the short term with the Legislature doing this, statutorily or through the normal political change," he says.

Olson and others who favor dedicating MVST to transportation have watched for years as lawmakers declined to raise the gas tax, the biggest source of revenue for road and bridge building.

Instead, lawmakers and the governor have voted to borrow money to finance a good share of the new spending on transportation.

If we don't pay it out of our current incomes and monies, we're doing a disservice to the rest of our future voters.

Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordon, opposes the amendment. Buesgens represents voters in a fast-growing Twin Cities southern suburb, and he thinks the ballot language gives lawmakers authority to direct all MVST revenue to transit -- or at least diminish the amount currently spent on roads.

"Do I believe that the 30 percent which currently goes to roads could diminish? Yeah, I do believe that could happen," Buesgens says.

A sampling of Twin Cities voters reveals a wide range of opinion on the issue.

Chris Strong, a social service agency worker who lives in east St. Paul, isn't sure how she'll vote on the question. However, she believes more money needs to be spent on the Twin Cities transportation system, especially transit. She doesn't see elected officials taking charge.

"I don't know that we have an alternative because people are not doing it voluntarily, or I don't see it coming voluntarily," Strong says.

John Reay, a computer programmer who lives in south Minneapolis, is also undecided on how he'll vote. He knows for sure he does not approve of the state's current strategy of borrowing to fund road and bridge construction.

"If we don't pay it out of our current incomes and monies, we're doing a disservice to the rest of our future voters," he says.

Reay supports raising Minnesota's gas tax. The 20-cent-per-gallon levy hasn't been increased since l988, and experts say inflation has eaten away one-third of its buying power.

Traffic at night
Traffic congestion is a growing problem in the Twin Cities metro area.
MPR file photo

Minneapolis resident Robert Rossi, a chemist and an Independence Party activist, says he isn't sure how he'll vote on the amendment. He prefers lawmakers decide how to fund transportation. But he blames voters for not paying attention to the issue.

"It's very easy to say it's our leaders who are failing us. The truth of it is, it is the voters who are choosing from among the options that are put before them. And they're not choosing people that are solving these problems, so it comes to this kind of a band-aid on the issue," Rossi says.

Voter approval of the constitutional change directing all the MVST money to transportation would amount to around $300 million a year when the change takes full effect by 2011.

Transportation advocates say much more, well over $1 billion, is needed each year to repair and expand Minnesota's transportation system.

Why is the problem so big? There are many reasons. One is Minnesota has a more extensive road network than some other states. Many of the miles are aged and in need of repair or replacement.

Also, population growth in the Twin Cities is straining the metropolitan road system and highlighting the Twin Cities underdeveloped transit system.

Minnesota isn't alone. Rob Puentes, a transportation analyst at the Brookings Institution, says states all around the country are looking for ways to increase transportation funding without riling voters.

"Many are doing more borrowing than ever before in the form of issuing bonds. Some are trying to sell off their toll roads to private companies for short-term infusions of cash," says Puentes. "They're fighting with one another here in Washington for a bigger chunk of the federal dollar. In short, they're doing anything they can to avoid increasing taxes, tolls or fees."

Minnesota's transportation funding gridlock has prompted several Twin Cities area counties to impose local wheelage taxes. In addition, residents in nearly every county are paying higher property taxes to help cover transportation costs.

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