Minnesotans shouldn’t forget monumental transportation investment


Under bitter attack from diehard antigovernment extremists, many of the Minnesota policymakers and their supporters who finally broke through 20 years of gridlock on state transportation funding have retreated into a defensive shell, apparently hoping the public forgets about the entire controversy.

Voices: Minnesotans shouldn’t forget monumental transportation investment

They shouldn’t. For the sake of the future – their own in the political arena and the whole state’s ability to meet the infrastructure challenges of the coming decades – transportation advocates should be proudly proclaiming the benefits for all Minnesotans of this historic step forward.

Along with $6.6 billion worth of new and improved roads, bridges and transit, the state will gain:

• Tens of thousands of construction jobs amid a looming recession.

• Further significant economic benefits from less congestion, fewer traffic crashes and a reduced risk of bridge collapses.

• An end to runaway property tax increases for local roads.

• A sorely needed step up in maintenance of state highways, which have been allowed to wear out almost unchecked for the past five years.

• A stable, dedicated source of funding to greatly speed up development of a comprehensive Twin Cities rail and bus rapid transit system – if efforts to raid the new money for existing operations can be headed off.

This is a shining achievement, all the more laudable because of the bipartisan courage and unity it took to overcome the stubborn obstructionism of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But since his veto was overridden, much too much of the focus has been on a minuscule increase in costs for taxpayers and political recriminations upon legislators who voted in favor.

All this negativity has been whipped up by a tiny minority of special interests who are desperate to ensure that this episode becomes no more than a single lapse in Minnesota’s 15-year string of no state tax increases. The drumbeat will continue through the November elections, but it need not call the tune if voters are told the whole story.

Over the past 15 years, Minnesota has cut income taxes and motor vehicle tab renewal fees – both to the disproportionate benefit of the wealthy. The resulting gaps in funding vital government services have been partially plugged with rising local property taxes and state college tuition, which fall most heavily on those of lower incomes.

Another huge tax cut was implemented under the radar — on autopilot, you might say – as inflation constantly eroded the buying power of the gasoline tax since it was last raised in 1988. It’s the only major statewide tax that doesn’t automatically increase along with prices. And neglect of this reality led to neglect of our roads and bridges, the only uses the Minnesota Constitution allows for gas taxes.

Growth and Justice calculates that over a 20-year period the state fell a cumulative $7 billion short of raising the road and bridge revenue needed just to maintain the inflation-adjusted funding levels of 1986. The disastrous legacy of this is seen today in our crumbling, congested roads and cross-your-fingers bridges.

And don’t think that the new transportation funding package will solve all these woes. For example, over the next six years it is projected to pump an additional $2.3 billion into our trunk highways. But the Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates that it needs more than that — $2.4 billion – EVERY YEAR through 2014 to meets its goals for the system.

The reality is that Minnesota has made a good and necessary start toward meeting the 21st century transportation challenges that hold the key to our prosperity. But much remains to be done.

Case in point: When Minnesota’s gas tax rises to 25.5 cents a gallon this fall, it will equal only 14 cents of buying power adjusted for inflation since 1988, when it hit the current 20 cents. And it will still be well under the U.S. average of 28.6 cents a gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Yes, more investments in our road, bridges and transit will be needed in the future. But they won’t happen if our policymakers run from the credit for what they accomplished this year.