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Agreement continues on MN transportation needs, not funding

A major highway construction project in Detroit Lakes is 'over the hump' but will still delay traffic heading to and from WE Fest Aug. 6-8. Here, crews pave the Highway 10 Frontage Road in front of the MnDOT building Thursday. Officials hope to have the frontage road open for WE Fest, taking some pressure off a new overpass being built in the same area on Highway 59. Photo by Brian Basham.1 / 2
An overflow crowd, mostly of construction workers, jams a Minnesota legislative hearing room Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, to hear testimony about the need to increase transportation funding. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesota legislators express nearly universal agreement that state roads and bridges need an infusion of money, but a deep divide about where to get the funds prevented action the last two years. The same disagreement exists as the 2017 legislative session begins, leaving in question whether anything significant and long term will be accomplished in transportation.

Minnesota's roads face an estimated $16 billion funding gap over the next 20 years, according to calculations from the state Department of Transportation. Many greater Minnesota residents say roads outside of the Twin Cities are in particularly bad shape. Lawmakers generally agree $600 million a year more is needed.

A public works bill that failed in the 2016 session's closing minutes would have moved money from the general fund — a pot of money where education and other services are funded — into transportation needs. The legislation went down over a dispute about building a new Twin Cities light rail line, but Democrats were not happy with how roads and bridges would have been funded. While Republicans have gained control of the state Senate and increased their majority margin in the House, the same political dynamics apply as before with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton still in office.

Dayton told Forum News Service that when he presents his budget on Jan. 24 he will call for new transportation revenue. While not specific, he appeared to lean toward bringing back a gasoline tax increase that Republicans killed two years ago. "You can't raid the general fund," Dayton said. Without new money, the governor added, "greater Minnesota is going to get cut off from neighboring communities."

"Transportation is like the arteries in the body," Dayton said. "If arteries get clogged up, you are going to have a heart attack."

Republican legislative leaders said they are optimistic the Legislature will pass a transportation bill, which they can do without Democratic support. But as the session approached, there was no indication how they could bridge the gap with the governor. As new Senate transportation chairman, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said that civility is the key to getting things done.

"The world I come from is a courtroom, and in trying lawsuits, you have to be civil and courteous and treat people with respect or there's a judge that'll sit on you," Newman said. "There are things we'll disagree with, but we'll have to work towards what we can agree on and work towards building a bill from there."

Newman said he expects to start with the failed 2016 transportation provisions when drawing up a new bill.

Incoming House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he likes the approach of retiring U.S. Rep. John Kline, a southeastern Minnesota Republican.

"Bipartisan efforts result in successful and lasting legislation," Torkelson said he learned from Kline. "When one party runs the table, it usually results in consternation and difficulty." Torkelson said that while he does not "have a solution in my back pocket ... it would be a mistake to let transportation slide again."

One complaint from Dayton and other Democrats is the 2016 bill, mostly written by Republicans, earmarked money for specific road projects. They said that has not been done before.

Torkelson said that has been done, such as for rebuilding Minnesota 60 in the southwest. However, he did not say that earmarking would be part of his transportation bill.

As to higher gas taxes, Torkelson said that his fellow Republicans likely would kill the idea, but "I am not locking any doors." Incoming Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, explained the situation in one sentence: "The public wants the roads and bridges fixed, they just don't want to pay for it."

The new House minority leader, Rep. Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said she objects to taking funds out of the same fund where education gets money because it will hurt transportation.

"When you have kindergartners competing against transportation kindergartners always will win."

It is not clear whether funding three new railroad crossings will make the cut in 2017. Dayton proposes building bridges or underpasses in Moorhead, Red Wing and Coon Rapids, where large numbers of oil trains cross busy streets. "All of these trains pretty much start in Moorhead when they come into Minnesota," Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said about the most complex and expensive of the three, in his community.

The Dayton administration lists the state cost of Moorhead's 21st Street project at more than $42 million, compared to $14 million in Redwing and $13 million in Coon Rapids.

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.