Why Minnesota’s roads are literally falling apart


Roads across the United States are getting better, or at least less bad. Not in Minnesota. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, pavement in poor or mediocre condition nationwide declined by 2.4 percent proportionally between 2002 and 2007.

In the Land of 10 Million Potholes, the share of poor and mediocre road miles more than doubled over the same period. What else would you expect when a state abandons its traditional policy of “preservation first” for highways in a headlong rush to lay more new pavement?

This is a problem that goes far beyond degraded driving comfort and aesthetics. Bad roads drive up collision and fatality rates as well as auto maintenance and repair costs.

And despite significant infusions from new state and federal transportation revenues, there’s no sign of Minnesota mending its ways – or its lousy roads. The state hasn’t met its goals for reducing state highway miles in poor condition since 2002, and Minnesota Department of Transportation construction and improvement plans point to more and more falling behind.

MnDOT’s latest pavement report shows 4.1 percent of principal arterial highways and 6.5 percent of non-principal arterials in poor condition, the worst on the scale, this year. Those numbers are more than double the state’s official goals of 2 percent for high-volume arterials, 3 percent for the rest. But MnDOT projects even worse results going forward: 5.1 percent of principal highways in poor condition by 2012, 8.3 percent of non-principals.

As recently as 2000, only 0.7 percent of Minnesota’s main arteries were in poor shape. In 2001, just 2.1 percent of non-principal highways got a poor rating. Since then, it’s been a near-unbroken march to ruin – a sevenfold increase in poor principal arteries by 2012, fourfold for non-principals.

Viewed from the flip side – the share of roads in good condition – the picture looks no better. Through 2002, the state comfortably met its goals of 70 percent of principal arterials rated as good, 65 percent for non-principals. Since then, neither goal has been attained even once.

From 80.5 percent attainment for main highways in 2000, we’ve fallen to 67.5 percent this year. MnDOT projections show slight improvement to 68 percent by 2012. Good low-volume highways declined from a peak of 70.3 percent in 2001 to 58.5 percent in 2009, a level projected to remain essentially flat in the next three years.

There’s no relief in the longer term, either. MnDOT expects to fall $1 billion short of the revenue needed over the next 20 years just to keep the roads in their current deteriorating state of repair. And it plans to spend billions more on improvements and system expansion, further widening the maintenance gap.

Lagging transportation investment has touched nearly every corner of the nation over the past several decades. But other states have found a way at least to keep the infrastructure they have in good shape. From 2002 to 2007, Minnesota’s spot in federal pavement quality rankings fell from eighth best among the states to 27th. Only Maine recorded a more precipitous plunge.

Among the states that moved ahead of Minnesota on the list are our neighbors in South Dakota and Iowa; North Dakota stayed ahead and Wisconsin stayed behind, although it closed the gap from 14 places to two. Also overtaking Minnesota on the list were low-tax states such as Alabama, Indiana, Texas and Utah and higher-tax places like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Ohio.

What this shows is that, no matter the political/policy character of your state, there’s always a way to a truly conservative program of maintaining the legacy of earlier generations in decent condition. Minnesota should do no less.