Transportation needs go unmet for lack of funds

Highway 212
Carver County officials point to this stretch of Minnesota state highway 212 where it narrows from four lanes to two lanes as a safety risk, and want the "hourglass" segment of the roadway widened to four lanes. The project is no longer likely to be done, given MnDOT's review of the state's transportation plan.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Minnesota transportation officials Thursday deliver another verse of an all too familiar tune, at a workshop where lawmakers and local officials hear more about the review underway of the state transportation plan.

The message is that the wish list for state transportation projects is much longer -- and more expensive -- than the state can afford. That means many highway improvements that should be done, won't be.

State Highway 5 in Carver County is one example. Carver County Commissioner Randy Maluchnik said Highway 5, a two-lane stretch of the road near Chanhassen and Victoria in the southwestern Twin Cities, is hazardous and needs to be four lanes wide.

That was part of the state transportation plan. But the project, which could cost hundreds of millions, Maluchnik said, is pushed back, way back.

"It's not even on the list, so other than they say it needs to be done," he said. "Now it's probably going to be moved out to a 50-year list."

All around the Twin Cities, local officials have been getting the same message.

Some projects deemed important, even essential, are up for review or even off the list because their collective cost vastly exceeds the money available.

Randy Maluchnik
Carver County Commissioner Randy Maluchnik says his county has a total of $800 million in road and bridge needs over the next 20 years, an amount of money he says is not likely forthcoming from federal, state or local coffers.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

For example, a longstanding item on the state transportation 20-year wish list has been adding a lane to the Interstate 494/694 beltway and other major Twin Cities roadways to help relieve congestion. Minnesota Department of Transportation director of statewide planning Peggy Reichert said cost puts that out of reach.

"It was some $37 billion and that wasn't going to eliminate congestion, so we really do need to rethink what we are trying to accomplish here," Reichert said.

The recalibration of the state transportation plan for the Twin Cities means, among other things, 14 big projects on the 20-year wish list, including the rebuild of the 169/494 interchange, have been pulled off the table for further review with an eye toward somehow reducing their pricetags.

The review marks a sharp turn in the road. For more than 60 years, Minnesotans interested in new roads and bridges have operated on a generally safe assumption -- that you make your case, wait your turn, maybe five, 10 or even 20 years, and eventually the state will smile on your project and it will be built.

The result is Minnesota has the country's fifth largest network of roads -- 152,000 miles -- with more than 25,000 bridges.

Some projects deemed important, even essential, are up for review or even off the list because of the cost.

As long as 10 years ago, and much more intensely the past two years, the new reality dawned that there isn't enough money to build everything on everybody's list of transportation needs.

More seriously, there isn't even enough money to maintain everything that's been built.

Gas tax revenues are flat or down, in part because cars are getting better mileage, and people, at least for the moment, are driving fewer miles. This, as thousands of miles of Minnesota roadway and hundreds of bridges are nearing the end of their life span.

Arlene McCarthy, the Metropolitan Council's director of transportation services, said meeting everyone's needs would require a big increase in the gas tax.

"If we were to do that, it would be equivalent to a $2 increase in the gas tax, which I think most people would agree is unrealistic," McCarthy said.

A shortage of money for transportation will likely influence one of the state's most pervasive trends. Cheap gas and good roads have allowed people to live nearly anywhere they want.

Carver County Commissioner Maluchnik said taxpayers, depending on where they live, are just now becoming aware of how transportation spending constraints will mean more congestion and longer commutes.

Maluchnik borrows a popular wartime expression to explain to constituents the cost of being free to choose where to live.

"Freedom's not free. You have to pay for it," Maluchnik said. "So if that's what you want to do, that lifestyle, you want that, it'll cost money to do that. That's plain and simple."

State and Metropolitan Council officials say they'll issue a revised 20-year transportation plan for public comment in a few months.