Roads and bridges top Capitol to-do list, but what's the cost?

Legislative Democrats and Republicans agree the state needs more transportation funding — but that's where the unity ends.

The parties are at odds over how to pay to maintain the state's aging roads and bridges, a cost expected to run $6.5 billion over the next 10 years. What to spend and where to find the money will be among the highest-profile debates at the Capitol in the session that starts Tuesday.

Minnesota's current funding isn't keeping up with the projected cost, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton says lawmakers need to close the funding gap this year just to maintain the state's highway system.

"We're not talking about gold-plating the system," he said. "We're talking about preventing bridges from falling down, preventing more accidents on overcrowded roads and highways, getting more people to use public transit so we reduce that congestion."

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

There are plenty of funding options, but all of them present problems either politically or financially.

Right now, the state relies on a combination of gas taxes, tab fees and auto sales taxes to pay for roads. As people drive less and cars become more efficient, transportation experts say the per gallon gas tax doesn't raise enough money, although lawmakers overrode a veto by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty to raise it six years ago. And federal aid is on the decline as well.

That's why Dayton says he's going to push for a sales tax on gas at the wholesale level — a move he says would add roughly 12 cents to the cost of every gallon of gas based on current gas prices.

Senate Transportation Chair Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, says that approach might work.

"People are driving less, and fuel efficiency and just plain old inflation is eroding the buying power of the normal gas tax," Dibble said. Dayton's proposal, he said, is "an interesting idea and viable idea we will be talking about."

Dayton also wants a sales tax increase in the metro area to pay for metro-area transit. That may ease concerns about greater Minnesota financing Twin Cities improvements. In some campaigns last year, Republicans argued roads and bridges in greater Minnesota were crumbling at the expense of new metro-area transit projects.

Road construction promises helped Republicans sway voters in greater Minnesota, though as the session draws near, mention of the word "tax" has House Republicans bristling.

Incoming House Transportation Committee Chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, says he doesn't think Minnesotans are up for another tax increase so soon after the Legislature raised taxes last session.

"I think $2 billion more in taxes was pretty steep," Kelly said. "To add more taxes at this point in time is a stretch."

Kelly says he's eyeing the state's general fund to pay for transportation. While the budget is projected to have a $1 billion surplus, Kelly acknowledges it would be a short-term fix.

Another option is to require the Minnesota Department of Transportation to be more efficient with how it spends money — something MnDOT says it has already done. Others have suggested new user fees and borrowing money with bonds.

No matter what, there will be a lot of pressure from those who want more money to get something done.

Move MN, a coalition of businesses and unions that wants new taxes to pay for transportation is running radio ads arguing transportation money is critical for the state's economic growth.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce echoes those concerns but wants new fees on people and businesses that benefit most from transportation projects, along with general fund spending and cost savings at MnDOT.

The chamber's members, however, do not want higher taxes.