Deadbeat Uncle Sam?


As Minnesota’s two seasons — winter and road construction — collide again this month, the state is launching transportation projects worth $1.1 billion at 74 Twin Cities locations, 194 in Greater Minnesota and 40 others not on highways.

Included is capacity expansion work that will complete Hwy. 610 in the northwestern metro, widen Interstate Hwy. 94 from Rogers to St. Michael and Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park and add priced congestion lanes to I-35E north of downtown St. Paul. So much for conservative claims that our government is bent on increasing traffic congestion.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is going full speed ahead on this ambitious to-do list — what Commissioner Charles Zelle likened to “building a Vikings’ stadium in a single season” — despite warnings that Washington could welch on its promise to pay about one-third of the costs.

Officials in Arkansas and Tennessee have already scaled back their road work programs in the face of a new projection that the federal Highway Trust Fund will dry up in July without congressional action.

South Dakota is nearing a decision to do the same thing. Other states are likely to rush their paperwork for reimbursement of road construction and repair outlays to the feds, which could speed the time when the fund runs short. Minnesota officials aren’t worried, though.

“At this point we are not delaying any projects,” said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. “Our finance people say we have a cushion. For a period of time, we’re OK.”

Threats of the so-called “richest country on earth” failing to pay its bills have become commonplace lately amid partisan gridlock in Washington. But while debt-ceiling controversies seem to have been settled, a bipartisan rush to a transportation fiscal cliff proceeds unabated.

Practically no one — with a rare exception or two — dares to raise federal fuel taxes, which have supported highways since 1932 and especially since the birth of the interstate highway program in the 1950s. But the rate was last raised to 18.4 cents a gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel in 1993 and has lost more than a third of its buying power to inflation. Meanwhile, driving is down and fuel economy is up, further depleting collections. In the breach, Congress has appropriated more than $53 billion in non-user general funds to prop up the fund.

This and other subsidies for drivers have brought user support of highway costs to less than 42 percent in Minnesota, a share barely more than transit riders pay at the farebox for considerably less convenience, access and mobility.

President Obama and a full ideological spectrum in Congress have proposed all sorts of non-user gimmicks to keep the highway fund solvent. None of these ideas has gained broad support so far.

Bringing the fuel tax into the 21st century would be the right way to fix what has become an ongoing government debt crisis, but it won’t happen in an election year — or probably any non-election year, for that matter. Expect more driver subsidy bandaids instead of Uncle Sam reneging for long on his pavement obligations.