Remedial highway funding instruction


Researching a recent story, I was watching a Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee hearing from earlier this session. I was disturbed to hear senators giving misinformed statements about transportation funding. Since the original hearing was six weeks ago, I assume the senators have received more accurate information. In case they haven’t, let’s go over some facts.

Following a Metro Transit presentation, one senator asked what the subsidies for each transit type were. After being given the answer, one conservative senator then asked, “will there ever be a day where any of these will be able to survive on its own?”

Senator Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) answered by saying, “I don’t think it’s been the policy of any government … to expect transportation of any form to ‘pay for itself’. We do transportation in order for a lot of other benefits to occur.” He then pointed out that roads, transit, and bikeways are all subsidized.

The committee’s chair responded by saying, “that whole discussion gets back to what is a user fee and what is actually a subsidy. Roads and bridges are virtually all-if not all-paid for by user fees such as gas tax and license tab fees and things like that.”

That’s false. When dealing with interstate highways, user fees (including tolls, which we mostly lack in MN) cover 51.72% of highways’ costs, according to the Federal Highway Administration (here’s the table). And the fact that the federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1993 (not even for inflation) isn’t helping matters.

For Minnesota’s highways, user fees cover even less of the bill. When it comes to state and city road funding, the majority of the funds come from the federal government, an impressive amount comes from local property taxes, and the rest comes from the general fund (here’s another chart). Unless the senator meant to include those in ‘things like that’, his statement was incorrect.

The idea that roads pay for themselves is incorrect in more ways than one. Transportation budgets only cover road construction and maintenance. They don’t account for hidden costs, like environmental harm, congestion, and highway-enabled sprawl. MN2020 and the U.S. PIRG are among the organizations that have written about this.

I want to be clear though: I am not saying that highways and roads are inherently bad. They are a critical element of our transportation infrastructure, and it is very important to fund and maintain them. It is also very important for citizens and policy-makers to make informed arguments when examining funding for different modes of transportation. Informed policy moves Minnesota forward.