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Minnesota's road to recovery not enough

So far the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has done a good job clearing out some of Minnesota's road, highway, bridge and transit backlog, put construction workers back on the job and provided a road map for future infrastructural growth in the state.

While there has been criticism of the federal money's impact, Minnesotans in every corner of the state can already, or will soon, see signs of progress. Many projects scheduled for two or three years from now are getting started this summer because of the additional federal funding.

In Beltrami County, federal stimulus money will help pay for about $17 million in road, bridge and airport improvements. Irvine Avenue in Bemidji will undergo reconstruction and Everts Road will receive a new overlay and shoulder work. Signs and traffic signals will also be replaced in the county.

Bemidji's airport will receive $500,000 for upgrades, according to Minnesota 2020's recent report, "Road to Recovery." Across Minnesota, the Recovery Act's nearly $1 billion in infrastructure spending is expected to create 26,000 jobs.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation obligated half of its $502 million in recovery funds for roads and bridges in half the time required by the federal government. Contractors and public bodies are also quickly working to bid and award these projects. With the economic downturn and the drop in the cost of building materials, many bids have come in below projected costs, with the extra savings going to fund even more construction.

While an excellent boost, this one-time spike in transportation spending represents only about half the state's typical yearly budget for roads and bridges. In the short-term, it will reverse heavy construction job losses while producing safer, more efficient, prosperity-boosting ways to get around for decades to come. But in order to truly capitalize on this funding, the state must find a better long term-solution to investing in infrastructure.

That's the important part because our needs are great.

Daily traveling is likely to take many Minnesotans over one of the state's more than 5,000 bridges at least half a century old or across pavement that is in less than good condition. Roughly half of the paving on our roads is in fair or poor condition.

These are expensive fixes, and the state doesn't have the money to pay for them all. Over the next 20 years, the MnDOT expects to have about $15 billion in revenue; however, it projects nearly $65 billion in highway and bridge infrastructural needs during that time. Even if the state took a preserve-only mode, it would still fall short because maintaining existing highways alone will cost $16 billion, according to MnDOT.

Adding to the problem, Minnesota's roads deteriorate faster than other states' throughways because of our harsh winters. Wrecked roadways cost Minnesota drivers about $350 a year in car repairs. Rush-hour drivers pay about $800 a year in congestion costs.

Minnesota can't afford to let its roads fall further into disrepair if it wants to attract, retain and maintain quality companies and grow jobs locally. Year-to-year quick fixes will only add to the backlog of road and bridge projects. The worst thing we can do as a state is put off this discussion or delay action until we reach a critical infrastructural deficit.

Just as with repairing our cars, it's always cheaper to repair a minor problem now than risk a major costly breakdown by ignoring it.

Conrad deFiebre is Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a non-partisan, progressive think tank.