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MnDOT officials see challenges down the road

ST. PAUL -- Many people have trouble planning next weekend, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking 50 years down the road.

Not surprisingly, MnDOT has discovered it faces many challenges.

A draft "vision statement" indicates that transportation planners must consider a variety of variables and obstacles in the next half century, ranging from a lack of money to an aging population to a rural exodus.

Since February, MnDOT officials have met with others involved in transportation, including the general public, about how to make decisions for the next half-century. On Tuesday, they held a statewide public hearing in person and via video hookups. Only a few people offered comments in the 90-minute session, something Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said was expected because those drawing up the vision already had talked to more than 8,000 Minnesotans.

The statement is due to be finished early next year.

"A 50-year vision hasn't been done in the past," said Joe McKinnon, MnDOT planning engineer in the Bemidji office. "This is an effort to go beyond the 20-year plan and really get people to think ... broad range, many years in the future."

McKinnon and Karen Bedeau, public affairs coordinator, led the videoconference at the Bemidji office, at which the only guest was Roseau County Commissioner Roger Falk.

Falk, who also attended a workshop on MnDOT's 50-year vision in May at Bemidji State University, said he remembered that maintaining the infrastructure was not a high priority among most of the attendees, especially with public transportation like light rail and buses available. However, he pointed out, the state still has a lot of rural roadways, and funding needs to be available to maintain them.

MnDOT notes in the draft vision statement that funding will continue to be a challenge: "This will put nearly continuous constraints on investment in infrastructure (of all kinds). If unaddressed, reduction, elimination and consolidation of services are all possible."

Sorel said MnDOT will be $50 billion short of needed funds in the next 20 years, but he said the department can take innovative approaches to make up some of the ground.

The commissioner refused to say that a lack of road funds, for instance, means highways will be in worse shape than the public demands.

Instead, he said, MnDOT will strive to meet public expectations. If the public will accept 5 percent to 9 percent of roadways to be in poor shape, it will be MnDOT's goal to only have that much in need of repair.

He called the approach "risk tolerance."

"How much will the public tolerate?" he said is the question MnDOT will ask.

The vision statement indicates that the state should not overbuild its transportation system, but needs to "build on a maintainable scale."

"I think that was heard throughout the state," McKinnon agreed, noting that people seated at his table at the Bemidji workshop in May were concerned with having a transportation network that's too large and is difficult and costly to maintain.

More people are moving to suburban Minnesota, leaving rural areas that have the vast majority of the state's roads.

"There appears to be no end to the nearly century-long trend of population shifts away from rural areas to urban centers," the MnDOT statement says. "Continuation of this trend will further increase demand for more urban forms of transportation and place strains on maintenance of existing transportation systems in rural areas."

A Growth and Justice think tank report last month indicated that rural Minnesota's major corridor roads, mostly in rural areas, make up just 2 percent of all roads but they carry more than a quarter of all vehicle miles and most freight traffic travels on them.

Growth and Justice suggested that major highway improvements be kept modest, to save money, unless the system becomes "far worse than what's anticipated."

In general, the MnDOT statement suggests that transportation decisions must take into account a wide range of issues, such as the economy, environment and health. It also says there is a need to ensure that poor and disabled Minnesotans have access to transportation. Also to be factored into decisions is the fact that the state and country are aging.

Once the 50-year vision is approved, it will serve as the basis for specific plans, such as for roads and rails, beginning next year.

The draft MnDOT vision statement and more information are available at MnDOT is accepting reactions to the statement until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 21.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer. Pioneer reporter Laurie Swenson contributed to this report.