Transportation investment to yield major returns

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Thanks to the Legislature’s override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s third veto of long-overdue revenue for roads, bridges and transit, it’s a brand new day for Minnesota’s vital transportation infrastructure.

With 33,000 new construction jobs coming on line as a recession begins to grip the state, the economic benefits will be immediate in employment stimulus as well as over the long term in safety and efficiency improvements.

But critics keep focusing on the few dollars a week it will cost the average Minnesotan in added fuel, vehicle and sales taxes. It’s time to take a closer look at the tangible benefits of this investment for every corner of the state:

* 13 fracture-critical trunk highway bridges – the kind that fell into the Mississippi River last Aug. 1 — will be promptly repaired or replaced, years or even decades ahead of former Minnesota Department of Transportation schedules.

* Dozens of highway projects – from bottleneck interchanges in the Twin Cities to four-lane upgrades outstate – also will be advanced from the old cash-strapped work plans.

* Relief for both local property taxes and the shrinking state general fund will flow from more than $100 million a year in new dedicated revenue for Twin Cities transit, much of it for operations.

* An estimated $160 million annual windfall in federal highway aid, thanks to more money available for the state’s 20 percent match.

* Nearly half a billion dollars in new money for Twin Cities county roads over a decade, boosted partly by a change in the funding formula to reward busy metro routes over lonelier country highways.

* And, just as important, details and priorities for many of these advancements will be determined by qualified new leadership at MnDOT.

Bridges on the tentative work plan include the structurally deficient Lafayette, Hastings, Red Wing and Winona spans over the Mississippi, a new St. Croix River crossing at Stillwater, five river bridges in northern Minnesota (near Baudette, Ely, Rauch, Robbin and Tower) and three in southern and central Minnesota (Comfrey, Forest City and Morton). A $600 million bond issue is to be let to begin work on all these projects within two years.

Aside from new lanes on Hwy. 60 from Worthington to the Iowa border and on Hwy. 14 between New Ulm and Rochester, which are all but spelled out in the bill, the choice of highway projects from a $14 billion backlog will be largely up MnDOT. With the ousted Commissioner Carol Molnau and her single-minded opposition to new taxes for roads gone from the department, indications are that the job will go to Robert Johns, now head of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Unlike Molnau, a farmer with no training in transportation science, Johns has degrees in engineering and operations research. In the 1970s and ’80s, through DFL and Republican state administrations, he worked at MnDOT on methods analysis, planning and data systems. His resume lists interests in transportation policy, innovation and strategic management. He would bring a fresh, nonpartisan perspective to a department that has been too heavily immersed in politics for too long.

Among the many worthy projects the new commissioner will consider are the long-delayed interchanges of Hwys. 169 and I-494 in Eden Prairie and at the “Devil’s Triangle” in Brooklyn Park, as well as completion of Hwy. 610 across Maple Grove.

Also on the wish list: $10 million in state matches for federal funds reserved for three highway projects on the Iron Range, reconstruction of Hwy. 100 through St. Louis Park, four-laning Hwy. 12 to Willmar and more than $200 million in deferred maintenance on outstate portions of Interstate Hwys. 35, 90 and 94.

“There’s so much misinformation out there,” Martin County Engineer Kevin Peyman told the Fairmont Sentinel. “A lot of people are afraid and are saying that this increase is going to cost families $1,000 a year and all the money is going to the Cities’ light rail system or bike trails. And that’s just not true.”

Rural Martin County on the Iowa border will reap an extra $10 million for road construction and maintenance over 10 years, Peyman said.

“Every county will benefit,” he added. “All the engineers in the state feel that everyone will benefit from this bill. We’ve been making up for the shortage by raising property taxes, which isn’t exactly fair. This way, the taxes for the roads are being paid by the people who use them most.”

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