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Pioneer Editorial: State system to fund roads must be fixed

Minnesota faces a severe crunch in find-ing enough money to maintain its roads, highways and bridges, let alone make new construction to handle traffic patterns and provide safety for the 21st century.

But the level of absurdity was reached recently when the state Department of Transportation put off for lack of funds a project to widen and improve U.S. Highway 53, one of the major gateways from Canada into Minnesota, via International Falls.

The lack of funds, however, isn't because the state can't find enough for the project -- just that it can't find enough to match the $50 million in federal funds already in the bank and waiting for the project. As a rule, federal projects want a 10 to 20 percent match for federal funding, so we're talking $5 million to $10 million in state money to trigger about $60 million of construction work on the Iron Range. Now, when the roads are done, traffic will flow safely, but think of the $60 million in jobs on the Iron Range to get there. It seems a no-brainer state investment for economic development, as well as transportation improvements.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, a major force in transportation funding, was able to include the funding in "earmarks," or special project funding, that will send $495 million to Minnesota. MnDOT says the Highway 53 project wasn't on its priority list, and therefore will be delayed to 2012.

But MnDOT can't even do the projects it programmed, as seen earlier this summer by the major metro-area bottleneck of Crosstown Highway 62. MnDOT underestimated the project at $250 million -- it's closer to $300 million -- and then wanted contractors to cash-flow the project until more MnDOT funding became available. Is there any wonder why no bids were made?

And what of earlier this year when MnDOT shifted $100 million from federal funds slated for rural projects to finish off metro construction, including a major bridge?

There has also been a change in road funding policies under the Pawlenty administration, shifting from a pay-as-you-go program to bonding and holding future generations to pay for projects. And, as part of budget-reducing measures in deficit times of 2003, much of MnDOT's reserves -- which could have provided the federal match today -- were drained. That Gov. Pawlenty vetoed a transportation bill last year which would have raised the gas tax 10-cents a gallon over two years , the first increase since 1988, also helped to put Minnesota's infrastructure financing on the brink of collapse.

We aren't yet sold on this fall's ballot measure, either, to ask voters to constitu-tionally dedicate the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation. If it were that simple, we'd be all for it. But metro-area legislators muddied up the question by also specify-ing that "at least 40 percent" go to transit and "no more than 60 percent" to roads. It's a recipe for disaster that could still leave rural Minnesota with bad, unsafe roads.

With the campaign season in full swing, we need to hear from our candidates what their plans are for Minnesota's roads. And it had better involve finding more money, and fast.