Letter: Transportation fix needs to be a long-term plan

Published 10:25 am Thursday, March 19, 2015

It sounds logical — transfer money from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund to fix roads and bridges that are deteriorating and unsafe. With a projected surplus in the state’s general fund, this idea sounds appealing to many lawmakers. There is just one catch: the Minnesota Legislature has been notorious for failing to honor commitments made to pay for highways with general fund money.

In 1981, the Minnesota legislature passed a law dedicating the revenue from the sales tax on motor vehicles to transportation with a phase-in period so that by 1990 and beyond, 100 percent of the revenue would be invested in transportation. Guess what? That transfer never happened. In fact, in 1991, 0 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax was being used for transportation. Why? Every time the state faced a deficit in the general fund, the dollars that were supposed to be transferred to transportation were instead used to balance the general fund budget. As a consequence, transportation lost $6 billion in revenue that was supposed to be provided by motor vehicle sales tax dollars. It took the voters passing a constitutional amendment in 2006 to finally get 100 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax to actually be spent on transportation.

Constitutionally-dedicated user fees are how we pay for roads and bridges in Minnesota. Voters have repeatedly supported this system as fair and accountable. Fuel tax dollars, license tab fees and sales tax on motor vehicles have to be deposited in separate accounts— not the general fund. Money in the Highway Trust Fund can only be used for a highway purpose in accordance with Minnesota’s constitution. Those who use the system pay for the system and we can all rest assured the money will be used to fix our roads and bridges. Other revenue sources don’t provide that guarantee and can be diverted to other uses at any time.

Email newsletter signup

Modest increases in dedicated user fees as proposed by Governor Dayton would cost the average driver less than the cost of a cup of coffee each week. With four million drivers all chipping in, it all adds up and we would have the level of funding we need to fix aging bridges and unsafe, deteriorating roadways with ongoing, dependable funding, which is critical for multi-year projects.

Safer roads shouldn’t have to compete with quality education and adequate health care for general fund dollars. We have traditionally relied on a separate Highway Trust Fund in Minnesota to take care of our roadways.

The problems on our transportation system can’t be fixed in one or two years. We will continue to have ongoing issues as the system ages and we can’t fix all of the important roads and bridges overnight. A one-time bonus sounds appealing but you wouldn’t take out a 30 year mortgage without an ongoing salary. The state needs to pass a long-term transportation funding plan that we can all depend on when today’s surplus turns into tomorrow’s deficit.

Russell Hess,