Minnesota not alone in struggle for transportation funding

Highway 52
An aerial view of the southern end of Highway 52 near Rochester, Minnesota. The highway underwent significant rebuilding in recent years, and the concrete that was used has a 60-year life span.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT

States are trying everything short of bake sales to raise money for roads, bridges and transit.

One of the most dramatic examples is a gambit by Washington state lawmakers just over a year ago to raise the state's gas nearly 9.5 cents a gallon over four years.

Matt Sundeen keeps his finger on the pulse of state transportation spending for the National Conference of State Legislatures and so far, he says, the Washington state move is still alive.

"The gas tax increase was challenged through an initiative process in the state and actually survived that initiative process and it will continue," he says.

In other states Sundeen notes a sharp rise in borrowing to fund transportation. The problem, he says, is a few states are starting to bump into the limits of borrowing as an option.

"There's an example of New Jersey which last year was faced with using their entire highway trust fund just to pay for debt service," he says.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle is thumping for a tried and true money raising idea. He wants lawmakers to increase vehicle registration fees. Also, in an attempt to siphon some money from huge energy company profits Doyle has another idea. Craig Thompson, the executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin says the governor wants lawmakers to adopt a new tax.

Sign of the times
Bridges like this one typically have a life span of about 60 years. Many of them are now in need of repair
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"He's also proposing, which is a bit more controversial, a 2.5 percent tax on gross receipts on oil companies which do business in Wisconsin," he says.

The mad scramble for raising road, bridge and transit revenue grows out of what Stuart Anderson calls a perfect funding storm. Anderson directs the Iowa Department of Transportation's Office of Systems Planning. The storm is flat, or even declining transportation funds, just as thousands of miles of Midwest roads and bridges need repair or replacement.

The storm started brewing about half a century ago.

Next time you're in an airplane on a clear day over the Midwest gaze down at the checkerboard pattern below you, according to Anderson.

"In Iowa, as in a lot of Midwestern states, there's the mile grid system where you have a county road every mile."

Anderson says the sprawling, lattice-like network of roads across the Midwest was built to help farmers get their products to market. When farms got bigger and equipment heavier, Anderson says, the Midwest transportation infrastructure of gravel roads and wooden bridges got a major upgrade to asphalt and steel.

"It was built in the 1940's, 50's, 60's, which means it's 40 and 50 and 60 years old."

Fifty to 60 years happens to be the life expectancy of many roads and bridges.

Anderson says Iowa's response to the storm is to make a list for lawmakers of all the needs and a list of ways to raise money. He says lawmakers last session passed a bill agreeing with the needs but put off a solution.

"They didn't create the revenue source," he says.

The worry among transportation advocates is not investing in roads, bridges and transit makes the weathering the storm more difficult.

The thinking goes this way.

Surveys show companies prefer expanding their businesses in areas where there's an educated workforce and a good transportation system. There's some evidence showing that years of raising local transportation revenue through sales taxes and other means have helped Phoenix, Denver, Houston, Dallas and Portland build transportation systems attractive to business.

The problem for Minnesota and the Twin Cities is doing nothing about transportation doesn't bloom into a crisis overnight, according to Jim Erkel. Erkel is land use and transportation program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

"You won't see a problem in this region, it won't be something dramatic. It will be a slow slide down the slope and after a while you'll just find we're way behind everybody else and we'll have no way of making it up," he says.

States weathering the transportation funding storm are watching another set of clouds gathering on the horizon.

Nearly half of the funding for state road projects comes from the federal highway trust fund. The prediction is that unless Congress acts to either raise the federal gas tax or find some other source of revenue the federal fund will be out of money by 2010.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.