Minnesota fell 10 places in a broad-based annual ranking of state highway systems newly issued by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that laudably puts more emphasis on fact-based research than on conservative talking points. But that doesn’t mean Reason’s work is totally free of ideological blinders.
Minnesota’s dive from 15th in the nation in 2007 to 25th, or dead middle, in 2008 may have been skewed by heightened traffic backups following the collapse of the Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge, the replacement for which wasn’t opened until late 2008. Minnesota’s urban interstate congestion was second only to California’s in Reason’s analysis, 60 percent worse than the U.S. average.
But Minnesota also got low marks from Reason for the condition of our rural interstates (No. 45) and, paradoxically, for spending well above average on highway maintenance (No. 38). Reason ranks states based on seven highway performance factors plus four spending measures in which the most penny-pinching states get the highest grades. Reason offers little or no acknowledgment, however, that performance success may come at the cost of “failure” on spending. As it is with a midday meal, there are no free roads and bridges.
There’s also no free snow plowing, which may explain wintry Minnesota’s low maintenance cost ranking. On highway construction (25th) and administrative spending (24th), we’re right in the middle. And we came in near the best in highway fatality rates, second only to Massachusetts, and in fewest deficient bridges, behind only Arizona and Nevada in the arid Southwest. We also got higher-than-average marks for the condition of our rural state and U.S. highways (No. 13) and our urban interstates (No. 15; you may go slow on Twin Cities freeways, but the ride will be pretty smooth).
Can Minnesota do better again? Perhaps with more efforts to make our urban and rural interstates work better. But that might cost more money, which gets you demerits from Reason. Its top two states for 2008 were North Dakota and Montana, which may tell us no more than that Reason’s libertarian policy benchmarks are a perfect fit for sparsely populated expanses with infrastructure and economies more suited to the 19th century than the 21st.