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Editorial: Transportation remains a top priority

A year or so ago, lawmakers and pretty much everyone else in St. Paul were buzzing about transportation funding. Our bridges and highways were crumbling. A long-term solution was needed. This was the year to finally get it done, to finally find and dedicate the money.

But it didn’t get done.

And this year the pre-legislative buzz has been all about improving water systems, bonding priorities, the budget surplus, and taking care of nonmetro Minnesota. As important as those priorities may be, what happened to transportation? Isn’t it still a critical need?

“It still should be,” Margaret Donahoe of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Transportation Alliance said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s part of why we’re here, to kind of remind everybody and the Legislature that this didn’t get done in 2015, and it’s something that really does impact everybody. … It’s a pretty core government responsibility.”

Everyone from the governor to Senate DFLers to House Republicans seem to agree that additional funding is critically needed for bridge and highway repairs statewide. There was consensus last year. There still is. The disagreement comes with how to pay for it, a sticking point that threatens to mar progress a second straight year.

Some say the state has a budget surplus that can be tapped. Or other things can be cut so state dollars can be reallocated to transportation. Others point to the need to increase Minnesota’s three constitutionally dedicated transportation funding sources: the gas tax, license tab fees and the motor vehicle sales tax.

While increasing the gas tax, raising license tab fees or bolstering the vehicle sales tax probably make the most sense, the reality is there’s enough transportation funding need in Minnesota to do all three — while also cutting elsewhere and reallocating and while also tapping the surplus, even if just enough to win political support.

The state of Minnesota spends about $500 million to $600 million a year to fix highways and bridges. But that’s about $250 million a year less than what’s needed just to maintain what’s in place. And it’s about $600 million a year over the next 10 years short of what ideally should be spent, according to the findings of a transportation finance advisory committee.

So those are estimates not from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which has been accused in the past of overstating its funding needs. Those are from a governor-appointed expert body.

The need is great. The political will hasn’t been.

And likely won’t be again this year, an election year. As responsible as it may be, voting to raise the gas tax is something no incumbent wants to do while also looking for votes.

But lawmakers may not have a choice. The list of deficient bridges and other transportation needs only grows longer with every decision to put it off. On a map the Transportation Alliance put together, the bad bridges are marked with red dots: Northeastern Minnesota looks like it has chickenpox.

“Unless the Legislature takes some action,” Donahoe said, “MnDOT’s construction program will fall off pretty dramatically. … (That) just means more problems that won’t get taken care of. … We’re really pushing that there should be a long-term fix so that we’re not back where we started just a couple of years from now. It is a short session. It is an election year. We do know that the tax bill and the bonding bill are kind of the big things that everybody wants to get done. We hope that transportation can be part of those bills.”

A year or so from now will St. Paul still be buzzing about the need for transportation funding? Not if lawmakers heed this reminder: Transportation remains a critical and urgent issue.

— Duluth News Tribune