MnDOT survey identifies $50 billion funding gap

Road Closed
Signs block off where construction begins in downtown St. Peter along Minnesota Avenue.
MPR file photo

Talk about a jam: Minnesota's updated 20-year plan for highways identifies $65 billion in needs and only $15 billion available to address them.

The just-finalized forecast from the Minnesota Department of Transportation says it is unrealistic to entirely close the gap. For instance, every cent added to the gas tax generates $30 million per year.

"We're at the dawn of a very difficult discussion of how we're going to finance our road construction in the future," said Tim Worke, a leading official with the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. "This $50 billion gap in Minnesota is just a microcosm of the huge problem nationally."

The problem results from unfavorable conditions on both sides of the ledger. Material and labor prices are expected to continue their steady climb. Tax revenue is largely stagnant as the move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles takes people longer distances on fewer gallons of gas.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

When the last forecast was done, in 2004, the difference between needs and resources was $24 billion. But state officials say the two versions can't be directly compared because they've changed the way they do the calculations; this time they estimated costs at the time of construction rather than what it would take today.

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said the big numbers could come as a shock to some given the fact state lawmakers approved a $6.6 billion finance plan in 2008. It produced the first per-gallon increase in the gas tax in 20 years and raised other fees.

"That did not take care of all of our issues and problems that we have," Sorel said in an interview Monday.

He added that the 20-year plan is part goal statement, part to-do list. He sought to reassure the public that not meeting every objective wouldn't put them at risk.

"If they don't happen that doesn't mean our system won't be safe," Sorel said. "We'll continue to make sure our bridges are safe and our roadways are safe. We just have to be more creative."

Sorel hopes it will spur discussion about new funding options and the embrace of technology, such as techniques for laying pavement that slows deterioration.

On the money end, Minnesota is currently conducting a pilot project to charge motorists based on the number of miles they travel rather than tax them on the amount of gas they buy.

Officials are also exploring how to let private investors pay for new road construction and charge users tolls to recoup their investment.

On the maintenance side, the 2008 transportation plan enacted over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto directs the department to rehabilitate or replace 120 deficient bridges by 2018.

But even though road planners rank preservation high on their priority list, they expect the number of pavement miles deemed poor to jump from 600 miles now to 1,600 by 2018.

Minnesota has a lot of roadways to deal with as the nation's 12th largest land-area state. There are 11,883 lane miles and 3,585 bridges in the state highway system.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said politicians and the public must get used to the idea that concrete overlays and crack filling deserves precedence over ribbon-cuttings on new lanes.

"If we continue to let our roads deteriorate the cost is going to be exponential," said Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "Instead of building new roads, we're going to have to tear up all of our old roads and build them again."