After much discussion, debate and disagreement, our state’s leaders decided to approve a transportation budget for the coming biennium that looks very much like the past two years.
The next year’s budget is $3.02 billion; 2021’s is $3.05 billion. Those numbers seem huge, but they are similar to the 2018-19 biennium. For MnDOT, that means business as usual in the coming biennium.
One specific transportation-related budget allocation that will affect just about every one of us is the $55 million to replace the failed MNLARS motor vehicle computer system that caused many headaches over the past year. For Minnesotans who waited months to get license plates or to transfer a vehicle title, that is indeed good news. We appreciate that the governor and the legislature were willing to admit the system did not work and must be fixed, and allocated the money to the Department of Public Safety to do so.
However, extra money to replace MNLARS will do nothing to fix our potholes or repair cracks in county roads and bridges.
A gas tax increase would have given MnDOT enough money to meet what it projects to be needed to simply operate and maintain the current bridge and highway system. It estimates that to be about $18 billion over 20 years. Local roads would also have gotten a funding boost. Gas tax money can only be used on roads and bridges (not transit) by law and is allocated 40% to counties, cities and towns, with 60% going to state roads and bridges.
MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher told the Editorial Board last month that the department needs to work on a long-term planning cycle, meaning it needs long-term revenue. General fund money can get moved to another department by decision of the legislature. Major road improvement projects take four years or more to complete.
Despite Gov. Walz’s commitment to seek a gas tax increase, and despite the DFL-led House’s approval, Senate Republicans would have nothing to do with the gas tax increase. With the state seeing revenue surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, there is no reason to increase any tax, they reasoned.
When the Legislature finally passed the transportation budget, there was no gas tax increase and the overall MnDOT budget was very similar to previous years.
Kelliher said she understands that compromise was necessary to make a final budget agreement. “We are pleased with some policy provisions and budget adjustments that were included to ensure MnDOT can continue to operate capably and provide quality services to all Minnesotans,” she said.
However, MnDOT is facing an $18 billion funding gap over the next 20 years that is not going away, she said. “In the coming weeks and months, hard decisions will likely have to be made about financing challenges for many of the more than 500-plus important projects statewide.”
Some legislators and many state residents are comfortable with the state using general funds and surplus money to supplement the highway budgets. But general funds can shrink as quickly as a surplus can grow. An extra $500 million this year might be a $500 million shortfall next year.
While the debate over a gas tax increase, or other options in allocating funds to transportation, has quieted for now, it will return.
Minnesotans will have to decide if staying the course is a workable option, or if they really desire adding the sustainable funding that a gas tax increase would provide.
The discussion will return as a topic in the 2020 legislature and as an election topic next year.
“We’ll continue to focus on the growing need and work with lawmakers on a long-term, sustainable transportation funding solution,” Kelliher said after the session had ended.
Minnesotans have two road construction seasons to survive before Election Day 2020. We will again have the opportunity to decide, are we content with the condition of our highways and bridges, or do we want something more?
— An opinion of the Adams Publishing - ECM Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Email to: