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Transportation funding faces ruts, potholes and more

Perhaps a road near you someday will be named "Ajax Bank Highway."

If the University of Minnesota can get $35 million selling naming rights for its stadium to TCF Bank, it is not out of the question to sell naming rights for highways in this time when policymakers are struggling to find ways to fund crumbling highways.

Some states are considering the idea, and with Minnesota lawmakers at a stalemate about how to fund road building and repair, look for that and other innovative concepts to appear in the next legislative session.

Not only will Minnesota likely look at new ways of funding roads, so will other states. A report from the National Chamber Foundation -- affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- indicates states are headed to a $1 trillion transportation budget deficit in the next nine years.

Minnesota roads may not be in the worst shape, but they are not doing well. A measure on the Nov. 7 ballot will ask Minnesotans to dedicate all of the state's motor vehicle sales tax to transportation, but that only would produce $2.5 billion for roads and transit over the next decade. But most experts agree that a minimum of $1 billion a year is needed for highway work.

In past years, the lack of funding could be blamed in a large part on a deadlock between lawmakers who refused to raise the gasoline tax to fund more highway construction and those who wanted to raise it up to a dime a gallon. This year, rising gasoline prices largely killed that issue because even those who support a gas tax increase didn't want to do it in this election year with soaring fuel prices.

With 18 percent of the nation's roads in poor condition -- and getting worse -- and 594,000 bridges needing replacement, federal and state lawmakers will be forced to do something.

"State lawmakers are at a critical juncture for investing in the nation's surface transportation system," the chamber report's co-author, Matt Sundeen, said. "They're looking for the funding models of the future. Current mechanisms, including the gas tax, just aren't going to be dependable as gas prices rise and consumer preferences change."

Sundeen is a National Conference of State Legislatures adviser, so state lawmakers no doubt will get the message.

Many states are looking into charging tolls on more roads, and some like Illinois and Indiana are leasing roads to private companies, which charge the public to use roads built with public money. Besides being tough for taxpayers to swallow, that concept won't work in rural Minnesota, where state roads are critical to the area's economy.

Oregon is trying another approach: Instead of motorists paying gasoline tax, global positioning system satellite technology is being tested as a means to charge motorists based on the miles they drive rather than how much fuel they burn.

The gas tax no longer is the fairest way to fund roads, according to Jim Reed, who directs the National Conference of State Legislatures' transportation program.

"They have not kept pace with inflation, and they could become an even less reliable revenue source as cars grow more fuel efficient," Reed said. "Raising them isn't really a viable option these days, with gas prices already so high."

With Minnesota lawmakers due to craft a two-year budget next year, voters would be well served to ask legislative candidates this campaign season how they would increase transportation funding.If something significant isn't done next year, Minnesotans will face a rough ride for years to come.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.