Agricultural interests push counties for "10-ton roads"

Five axle truck.
A growing number of Minnesota farmers use semi-trailer or five-axle trucks which when loaded to capacity weigh 80,000 pounds
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Nicollet County farmer Peter Anthony is hauling a magnificent harvest off his fields. He says he's fortunate the county road next to his family farm is built to withstand the farm's five-axle semi-trailer truck loads of 80,000 pounds. But two thirds of Minnesota's county highways aren't built to that standard. Anthony says that means farmers must use smaller trucks or haul much lighter loads.

"So you're making three times as many trips and burning three times as much fuel and putting three times the wear and tear on your equipment," Anthony says.

Nicollet County Public Works Director and highway engineer Mike Wagner says many farmers and other haulers ignore the road limits. Wagner says during harvest, many farmers load their trucks to the limit in the race to get their commodities off the fields before bad weather strikes. The result of heavier loads on roads not built for the weight is road life expectancy can be cut in half.

Farm truck.
Fifty years ago smaller farm trucks carried most of the produce off Minnesota's farm fields to markets on gravel roads
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"Instead of 20 years that road will probably get more like a 10-year life," says Wagner.

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Wagner and other county highway engineers are proposing a solution. They want the state to adopt a rule that when counties rebuild sections of their highways they build them strong enough to accommodate 80,000 pound semi-trailer trucks. It's called the 10-ton standard.

Many of the affected county highways are in Minnesota's most productive farming belt, a crescent running farm northwestern Minnesota expanding through the state's southern counties.

Wagner says the cost of meeting the standard varies widely. All some roads need is a couple more inches of pavement costing no more than $140,000 a mile. Some roads need more than resurfacing, however. They need rebuilding that Wagner says can cost $700,000 a mile.

The problem facing advocates who want stronger county highways is finding the money.

It's a lot of numbers but here's how it breaks down: A good share of the money for Minnesota's roads and bridges comes from the gasoline tax and the tab fee. Counties receive less than a third of that money, 29 percent, or about $360 million a year. The counties also get another $100 million of so in federal funds each year.

Minnesota farm country.
Thirty-thousand miles of county highways like the one serving Rothsay in northwestern Minnesota criss-cross the state with about a third of the miles built to withstand 10-ton loads carried by semi trailer trucks.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Wagner says the projection is counties will get less next year. Part of the reason is the growth in gas tax revenue is slowing not because we're driving less but because our vehicles are getting better mileage.

"That entire 29-percent distribution is all going to be down in 2007 so we're not getting increases because of more fuel being used. And that fuel tax hasn't changed since l988 so that 20 cents now is buying us less than 12 cents," he says.

With revenue not keeping up with road repair and maintenance needs, some counties have turned to borrowing. Paying off the debt carves into future revenue. Counties and cities are also increasingly turning to property taxes as a way to raise revenue for transportation.

State Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, and other lawmakers have for years tried unsuccessfully to raise the state gasoline tax. Murphy chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. He says he'll be back this legislative session with another proposal to fund the 10-ton road standard for county highways, a goal he says many city and suburban lawmakers support.

"Most of the time the people from the suburbs and the cities know literally who puts butter on their bread and they're more than willing to help us out in greater Minnesota," according to Murphy.

However taxpayers remain resistant. Many voters favor increased spending for education and health care but Murphy says transportation spending is a tougher sell.

"As people as driving down the road they don't really think about it until they hit that big pot hole and that's the thing we've been fighting against for the longest time," he says.

Putting a price tag on a uniform 10-ton standard for Minnesota's county highways is tricky. The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a transportation advocacy group which favors the standard says the bill could be $4 billion dollars.