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GUEST COMMENTARY: Transportation sets the table for major debate of 2015

By Representative Mike Sundin

The first month of the 2015 legislative session is now in the rear view mirror, but the memories of Election Day promises are still fresh in the minds of Minnesotans around the state. The month of January included several important events that are going to shape the progress of several important issues that will define this session, transportation among them.

In late January, Governor Dayton revealed details of his transportation plan. The Governor proposed a straightforward, honest solution to fix Minnesota’s aging transportation systems. His plan would invest $6 billion over the next 10 years to address the state’s highway funding deficit, invest $2.356 billion in local government transportation projects, and provide $2.92 billion for Metro and Greater Minnesota transit systems. The Governor’s proposal would create an estimated 119,000 new jobs.

I appreciate the Governor’s willingness to take bold leadership on this issue. For years, legislative leaders of both parties have been distressed by the lack of political leadership to make even the smallest investments in the infrastructure built and paid for by our parents and grandparents. Our own future economic success depends on ensuring that Minnesotans are driving on safe, reliable roads and bridges. This lack of leadership has caused Minnesota to incur a transportation funding deficit of over $6 billion over the next 10 years.

Of course, the least palatable part of the Governor’s plan is the high cost, but those costs will only continue to grow with every day we fail to act. An infusion of revenue from a 6.5 percent wholesale gas tax increase and a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees to fix and improve the quality of roads and bridges in our state is necessary to close the funding deficit and find solutions that help our entire state. The Governor is also expecting MnDOT to continue generating efficiencies and cost-saving measures that will constitute 15 percent of the needed revenue.

I believe the question of how to maintain, improve, and finance the major road and bridge problems we face will be, and should be, the major issue of this legislative session. However, I’ve been disappointed to see that the House Republican leadership doesn’t seem to place that same high priority on transportation.

All throughout the 2014 election season, I heard Republicans in every corner of the state decrying our lack of serious investment in infrastructure. I agreed with them. It’s part of the reason I first ran for office, but I don’t agree with the hypocrisy they are displaying now that they have regained the majority, as they turn their backs on proper funding mechanisms and real long-term solutions.

The GOP released its transportation “plan” in early January as one of the first six bills authored this session. As it’s currently drafted, the “plan” would spend down $750 million of the $1 billion DFL budget surplus, spend down our budget reserves, and use undedicated general fund money, instead of funds specifically dedicated to roads and bridges. Those might sound like big numbers to you and me, but when put in the shadow of a $6 billion funding gap over the next ten years, it’s like putting a finger in the hole of a leaky dam.

Right now, more than half of Minnesota’s roads are more than 50 years old, and 40 percent of the state’s bridges are more than 40 years old. In just the next three years alone, one in five Minnesota roads will pass their useful life. And in the next 10 years, nearly 40 percent of our roads will be past their useful life.

As legislators, we’ve been able to find common ground on the first two pieces of legislation this session, which enacted federal tax conformity and authorized disaster relief spending. The future economic success of Minnesota depends on the House GOP finding a way to pay for maintaining our transportation infrastructure.  Our economic success depends on it.