The real problem with MnDOT leadership

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Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau has faced lots of well-deserved heat for her performance as state transportation commissioner in the wake of the I35W bridge collapse, the abuses of her missing-in-action former emergency management director and delays of important road and bridge projects.

Those are all valid points of criticism, especially for a tough-talking politician who Gov. Tim Pawlenty vowed would “grab some lapels” and correct the alleged dysfunctions at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Opinion: The real problem with MnDOT leadership

Five years into Molnau’s reign at MnDOT, it appears that the problems are multiplying. Could it be because there are hundreds fewer people working there than when Molnau took over? Their jobs were eliminated or outsourced to the private sector to cut MnDOT’s operating budget in favor of increased debt service for highway bonds.

Meanwhile, by its own estimate, the department is still $2.4 billion a year short of meeting its needs for trunk highway construction and maintenance over the next seven years. A competent manager would fight for that money via all channels available. This one, beholden to an absolutist ideology of no new taxes no matter what, has ruled out the most obvious route to improvement: increased user fees.

Instead, Molnau makes circular arguments, as quoted in a recent Star Tribune interview, that “the gas tax is not going to be able to keep up with the needs.” And why is that? Because Molnau and Pawlenty won’t let it. She has cheered the governor’s two vetoes of bipartisan transportation funding bills that would have raised the tax at the pump for the first time since 1988.

(In the same interview, Molnau’s hired brain, assistant to the commissioner Bob McFarlin, threw cold water on her suggestion that a mileage tax could replace the gas tax. That option for the state is now being studied at a cost to Minnesota taxpayers of millions, but McFarlin said “no state can implement that on its own because “they’d make themselves an island.” It’s probably a federal issue, he added.)

You can be sure that last week’s state budget forecast of a $373 million deficit through June 2009 will bring a return of rhetoric that an economic downturn is “the exact wrong time to raise taxes.” And as legislators search for ways to plug that gap in the general fund, they may be less inclined to raise revenue for the wholly separate transportation ledgers.

There are valid reasons to do so anyway. Economists have shown that smart investments in transportation infrastructure pay returns far beyond their costs. Much of that comes through increased construction jobs, which would provide welcome stimulus to Minnesota’s economy at a time when our unemployment rate has moved above the national average for the first time in 30 years.

Indeed, one of the reasons state economist Tom Stinson has given for Minnesota’s weak recent economic performance compared with the rest of the nation is our relative lack of the kind of government spending that’s growing briskly elsewhere: defense contracting.

That, of course, goes to social engineering in Iraq, Afghanistan and other points around the globe, but the short-term economic benefits redound in places like California, Georgia and Texas. Best of all for the anti-tax absolutists, it’s financed with money borrowed from our children and grandchildren.

By contrast, if we invest real money in roads, bridges and transit in Minnesota, the benefits to businesses and families will last for decades, enriching our descendants rather than robbing them. Minnesota needs a transportation commissioner who understands that kind of forward-looking policy and will strive to make it a reality.

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