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Road funding inaction costs taxpayers money

Mankato Free Press

Distributed by the Associated Press

Minnesota taxpayers are losing about $3.75 million a month because the Minnesota Legislature has not passed a comprehensive transportation bill.

That’s the monthly inflationary cost of fixing only state highways, excluding county state aid highways, municipal highways and all kinds of other transportation costs.

We spend about $900 million a year on the state highways. The Transportation Finance Advisory Committee (TFAC) two years ago said inflation costs for fixing roads ran about 5 percent. We suspect it’s even more now. Hence our minimal annual loss to inflation is about $45 million.

And this committee, made up of elected officials from both parties, business, and representatives from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said keeping funding as it is with no new funding stream would eventually put about 25 percent of all state highways in poor condition.

So the Legislature has been in session for about a month and nothing significant has been done. That’s a $3.75 million bill to taxpayers.

But it gets worse. Even if legislators add $250 million more per year to state highways alone, a 27 percent increase, we’ll still have the same amount of terrible roads we have today — about 7 percent, according to the TFAC study done in 2012. MnDOT now says that number is 9 percent. The longtime goal of MnDOT and the state to have 2 percent to 3 percent of roads in poor condition is a pipe dream.

You might say 7 percent terrible roads is something we’ll have to live with in these austere times, but that logic doesn’t really work. When a road gets into “poor” condition, it is exponentially much costlier to fix.

Take Highway 22 south of Mankato. MnDOT thought it could pave 12 miles from Blue Earth County Road 90 to Mapleton with a quick fix, cheaper mill and overlay project. That involves scraping the old roadway and putting a new layer of blacktop over it. It would cost about $1.3 million per mile.

But fixing the road has been delayed year after year due to funding shortages. So after further review and inspection, MnDOT determined the road had to be fully reconstructed at a cost of about $1.95 million per mile.

So, the inaction of the Legislature cost taxpayers $650,000 per mile, or about $7 million, on this project alone.

The road funding gridlock between Democrats and Republicans in the conference committee is more about how to pay for the road needs versus agreeing to what’s needed.

Democrats have proposed a partial gas tax or other fee and some diverting of money from the general fund. Democrats have moved toward compromise with this position, with their initial position being mostly gas tax funding and no general fund diversion.

Republicans want more general fund diversion. They argue a surplus allows us to do this without much pain or risk of other funding priorities, like schools, getting hurt. That’s true as long as we have a surplus.

The bottom line here is both sides have to bend. It’s hard to see how Republicans are doing that. Doing nothing or doing a little will not solve the long-term problem or the short term waste of taxpayer money.

The Legislature has to get this done. If they don’t, every taxpayer in every legislative district in every part of the state will be paying more than they should to fix our continually deteriorating roads. It’s getting more expensive every day.