Minnesota roads literally falling apart


Potholes and buckled pavement are making their usual late-winter appearance on Minnesota’s streets and roads, jarring drivers’ tail bones and vehicle suspensions, but a new state Department of Transportation report signals even rougher riding ahead.

Update: Today’s report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor confirms many of these findings.

That’s because stagnant funding for road and bridge maintenance can’t keep up with pavement that’s deteriorating faster than previous official estimates. The average major state highway now has only 9.2 years of surface life remaining, compared with 14.8 years in 2001.

We’re wearing out infrastructure that keeps our economy moving, and it’s only going to get worse, MnDOT said in a draft of its 2007 pavement condition report issued Jan. 23.

Current roadwork plans through 2011 are “expected to result in twice as many miles in ‘Poor’ condition (emphasis by MnDOT authors) compared to 2007, nearly four times the target amount,” the report warns. “The reason for this is no substantial increase in pavement preservation spending.”

Last year was another dispiriting time for the folks who measure the continuing decline in our state’s road quality. According to the draft report, “2007 was the first year since we’ve had pavement measures that not a single MnDOT district met all four smoothness targets.” Three of the eight districts, including the metro, met none of the targets, the report added.

MnDOT hasn’t hit its self-imposed target of 70 percent of major state highways in good condition since 2002, although as recently as 2000 more than 80 percent of the system was rated as good. In 2007, it dipped to 66.3 percent, and the draft report predicted a further drop to 64.7 percent based on current funding plans.

At the same time, more major highways are falling into poor condition, the draft report showed – 2.6 percent of the system in 2007 and a projected 7.6 percent by 2011. The comparable figure in 2000 was 0.7 percent. For non-principal trunk highways, the news is even worse: In 2007, 6.5 percent of those roads were rated poor. The prediction for 2001 is 11.4 percent.

This is more serious than an extra bump or two in the road and a bit less pleasant motoring experience. A 2007 Colorado study found that investments to keep that state’s highways in good shape would reduce vehicle operating costs by 6 percent ($205 a year per car) and traffic fatalities by 14 percent. Such action could also cut auto insurance rates, the study said.

To meet ride quality targets in Minnesota by 2014 and keep them there, the MnDOT draft report said $441 million per year would need to be spent on pavement preservation from 2012 to 2018. But current budget estimates for preservation are barely half that — $230 million a year – leaving a seven-year funding gap of $1.48 billion, the report said.

That ain’t hay, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the near $14 billion cumulative highway funding shortfall for Minnesota from 1986 to 2006 calculated by Matt Kane of Growth & Justice in a new report this month. And MnDOT itself says it needs $2.4 billion a year more than current funding levels over the next six years just for trunk highways, which make up less than one-tenth of the state’s road system.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, continues to wave a veto pen in the faces of legislators who want to chip away at those deficits with long overdue and reasonable increases in fuel and vehicle taxes. Here’s hoping enough legislators grasp the much greater costs of inaction to our lives and livelihoods and take the steps needed to move Minnesota ahead over the governor’s stubborn objections.