Money for motorized recreation too much, some Minnesotans say

ATV in mud bog
Chelsea Iverson of Hermantown, Minn. speeds through a mud bog at the Iron Range Off-Highway Recreation Area near Gilbert, Minn. Saturday afternoon.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

A Minnesota group opposed to motorized recreation says the state should stop spending millions of gas tax dollars on programs for snowmobiles, boats and All Terrain Vehicles.

Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation says the state should put the money toward deteriorating roads and bridges instead.

Minnesota's gas tax raised $745 million last year.

The state constitution says the tax dollars collected on gas that goes into vehicles using public roads must go to the highway fund. But the legislature has interpreted that as meaning the tax on gas going into boats can go towards boat landings; taxes for gas in ATVs can go to ATV trails.

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Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation Executive Director Jeff Brown said most people would be surprised at the amount of money diverted from the roads to boating, off-road trucks, motorcycles and ATVs.

Dirtbikes at the recreation area
Tricia Hansen (left) and Kevin Hansen (right), both of St. Paul, ride their dirtbikes through the Iron Range Off-Highway Recreation Area Saturday afternoon near Gilbert, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

"Almost 3 percent of our state's annual gas tax is diverted to motorized recreation," Brown said. "Minnesotans have paid out $350 million to promote motorized recreation -- $18.5 million each year."

Brown said that's a significant amount of money the state needs to fix crumbling roads and highway infrastructure.

"Our state is in a financial crisis," he said. "Our roads and bridges are falling apart. If you look at MnDOT's 20-year plan they identify many unfunded high priority needs. This is the moment for Minnesotans to go to their legislators and tell them to end the $18.5 million in annual gas tax diversions to motorized recreation."

Brown said there are questions about the constitutionality of the diversions, and about how much should be diverted.

The use of gas tax revenues for recreational purposes dates back to 1960 when money was diverted for boat infrastructure and water-based law enforcement. The state tries to estimate how much to divert based on studies like a 2005 mail survey to determine how much fuel ends up in ATVs. The results of that study led to an additional $1 million a year going into the ATV-dedicated account.

Driving through a mud pit
Kerby Karlsrud of Farmington, Minn. speeds through a mud bog at the Iron Range Off-Highway Recreation Area Saturday afternoon near Gilbert, Minn. Karlsrud was up for the day with his wife Nicole Karlsrud (not pictured).
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

But the formulas are troubling some public transportation advocates like Margaret Donahoe with the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. She wants to make sure the roads are receiving enough of the money.

"You know, a small bridge can cost half-a-million dollars to replace it," Donahoe said. "So, you could do a number of bridges. You could do a number of overlays, repairs, fixing potholes. You could do a lot with $18 million."

ATV owner and chair of the Senate Tax Committee, DFLer Tom Bakk of Cook, says the system is fine.

"It's based on the number of machines and the average number of gallons of gasoline consumed, or it's based on some survey," Bakk said. "You have to base it on something. And it just plugs into a formula, and I think it's pretty fair."

Iron Range Off-Highway Recreation Area
The mud pits at the Iron Range Off-Highway Recreation Area near Gilbert, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

He said the tax diversion system has provided Minnesota with high-quality boating opportunities and motorized recreational trails that benefit the rural economy.

"It really is an industry that's kind of stood on its own, with registration fees, with the in-lieu of payment of gas taxes," Bakk said. "They've built an incredible trail system, and they've paid for a lot of enforcement. In the case of boats and the water-rec account -- invasive species work, boat landing work -- there's a lot of good that's come out of it and it's really been paid by the users."

Ending the funding altogether, Bakk said, means you have to fund trails and enforcement from somewhere else, like the state's general fund.

Bakk doesn't see support in the legislature for ending the tax diversion. A proposal to commission a new ATV study through the University of Minnesota was halted at the Capitol. Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, meanwhile, is taking its pitch to the state's candidates for governor. They plan to find where candidates stand on non-road gas tax diversions, hoping to use the issue in the governor's race.