State is 20 years behind in funding transportation

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Even before the I-35W bridge collapse, leaders across party lines in recent years have been in agreement that Minnesota is 20 years behind in transportation investment.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty used that figure as recently as last spring in a Granite Falls speech. So what does that mean in actual dollars?

Research by the economic think tank Growth & Justice shows that if the state had kept up with its highway funding in 1986, adjusting for inflation and dramatic growth in highway usage, it would have invested $13.89 billion more over the last 20 years.

Matt Kane, Growth & Justice Policy Fellow for Infrastructure and Economic Development, said these findings are part of “Twenty Years Behind: Highway Spending & Revenues by Minnesota’s State Government, 1986-2006” which attempts to quantify how far Minnesota has fallen behind in transportation infrastructure investments.

“Public officials have repeatedly said that Minnesota is 20 years behind in transportation infrastructure, so we were interested in taking a closer look and estimating the dollar impact over the last two decades,” Kane said. “And despite the efforts to catch up on funding in recent years, our research suggests that the state has invested almost $14 billion less than if it had kept up with the funding level deemed sufficient in 1986.”

Highlights of “Twenty Years Behind: Highway Spending & Revenues by Minnesota’s State Government, 1986-2006” include:

• The trend line for overall highway spending by Minnesota’s state government lags behind the trend for overall spending by all states combined.

• Revenues from Minnesota’s gas tax dropped by more than a third from 2006 to 1986. If gas tax revenues had increased enough every year to keep pace with inflation and miles traveled, the state would have an additional $3.86 billion.

• Federal highway funds to Minnesota declined significantly over the period from 1986 to 2006, adjusted for inflation and miles traveled, a trend driven in large part by the federal tax treatment of gasohol – a problem Congress fixed recently, significantly increasing the funds available for Minnesota going forward. Cumulatively federal funds to the state from 1986 to 2006 amounted to $6.76 billion less than if they had stayed even with the adjusted 1986 level. Federal funds to all state governments combined grew by 24.1 percent from 1986 to 2006 in inflation-adjusted dollars, but inflation-adjusted federal funding to Minnesota fell by 9.4 percent.

• Had the state looked only to expanding roadways as a solution to transportation problems, Minnesota by 2006 would need to have added 10,700 lane miles to the 15,900 lane miles on its existing major routes to have stayed even with the 1986 total, adjusted for growth in miles traveled.

Kane said that the overall price tag alone of Minnesota’s shortfall should prompt creative thinking about the best ways to address Minnesota’s transportation challenges because without action, significant investment and new strategies, Minnesota’s highway system will become increasingly inadequate. The report cites region-wide transit, traffic management efforts and land use planning as likely parts of the solution to transportation infrastructure needs.

“Clearly Minnesota must commit serious resources to improving and expanding its transportation infrastructure,” Kane said. “The state needs a system that is efficient, accessible, cost-effective, timely, and reliable. The dollar gaps from 1986 to 2006 are daunting, but increased investments now in Minnesota’s highway system and its broader transportation infrastructure stand out as critically important for a number of reasons, including mobility, access and economic growth.”

Kane said that this report is the first step in a Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Transportation Infrastructure project that he will lead.

“While the 20-year report looks only at trends for highways, the Smart Investments project will take a broader cut at Minnesota’s statewide transportation system, covering roads, transit, and land-use patterns,” Kane said. “I look forward to further exploring these issues in the Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Transportation Infrastructure project and sharing these results with policy makers and others who are interested in making the investments we need to spur growth and expand economic opportunity.”

Growth & Justice also is engaged in Smart Investments for Minnesota’s Students strategy and Smart Government with Accountability projects.

“Twenty Years Behind: Highway Spending & Revenues by Minnesota’s State Government, 1986-2006” is available at www.growthandjustice.org.

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