It was frustrating to watch MnDOT recently unveil their short list of highway projects in the Corridors of Commerce program. We had been hopeful that some real progress might be made for any of a number of important safety-related projects on Hwys. 212 and 23. That wasn’t to be. We weren’t the only ones disappointed. The Highway 14 advocates felt let down, too, when the often-talked-about expansion of that highway between New Ulm and Rochester was left off the list.
Corridors of Commerce is a program that the legislature has funded a couple of times with a set aside of some one-time money. The program is supposed to address highway or bridge projects that fall outside of the normal highway or bridge funding sources. A $300 million Corridors of Commerce funding four years ago brought us the much needed and greatly appreciated passing lanes along Hwy. 23 between Willmar and Pipestone as well as several other medium-sized projects that enhanced safety or eliminated traffic bottlenecks.
Safety improvements and reducing traffic bottlenecks are among a list of requirements that limit where these funds can be spent and what they can be spent on. The intent of the legislation for this $400 million infusion of money was to have it split evenly between Greater Minne-sota and the Metro area.
The public was asked to submit projects for consideration using those guidelines. 299 submissions were received statewide. There were several duplications but many worthy and necessary projects made the list. I submitted 13 projects on Hwys. 212 and 23, which were among the few highways in our part of the state that were eligible for this funding source. Our friends on the east end of Hwy. 212 and along Hwy. 23 from Marshall to Cold Spring also submitted several projects. Some were very expensive and some much more moderate but all were good safety improvements. None were selected. Using a scoring system that seemed fair, MnDOT set aside roughly half the available funding for two large Metro area projects, both on the always busy and congested I-494 in Bloomington. They both seem like good and very necessary projects. They used the same criteria for projects selected from Greater Minnesota. However MnDOT used criteria to define Greater Minnesota in a way that most of us wouldn’t. That resulted in only two very large projects being funded, one at Elk River and another between Monticello and Albertville. No one disputes that those projects are needed and worthy of funding. However, being just 35 miles from downtown Minneapolis, both seem to be Metro area projects than Greater Minnesota projects.
Meanwhile, deserving projects on Hwys. 212, 23 and 14 sit unfunded and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. And there are many other roads with those same needs, all over Minnesota.
The need for expanding Hwy. 212 to four lanes either side of Cologne is so blatantly obvious. It would be a big help for travelers and truckers from our part the state. The Hwy. 212 advocacy group, known as the Southwest Transportation Corridor Coalition, has secured a $10 million federal freight mobility grant which would help with the expected $60 million price tag for that stretch. However, that apparently wasn’t enough to convince MnDOT to fund the project. Hopefully, that grant will remain in place as a potential cost savings for that project in the near future.
Plenty of us have expressed disappointment in MnDOT’s Corridors of Commerce decision. However, our reaction has been aimed at what are really symptoms of the problem and not the root cause, which is a lack of transportation funding, brought about by a lack of action, or fortitude, by the legislature in addressing the need for additional transportation money.
While the Corridors of Commerce funding is a good program of one-time money, it doesn't go nearly far enough to address the ongoing and long-term needs for rebuilding our tattered roads and bridges. There is really only one solution: More funding. Our legislators need to step up, and do the heavy lifting of taking responsibility for finding additional funds. Shifting funds from other programs needed by schools and cities doesn’t bring about a sufficient solution or because it “robs Peter to pay Paul” and may actually harm those other programs.
With increasing fuel efficiency of cars, a gas tax increase is not a perfect thing but it is a true user fee and still provides the lion’s share of dedicated road funding for all states. Our neighboring states of South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska have all raised their per gallon gas tax in the last 2-3 years and each of them had Republican legislatures and governors. In Nebraska, their Republican-led legislature overrode the Republican governor’s veto of the gas tax increase. These states each were able to do this. Why not here in Minnesota?
The need is so obvious but the willingness to raise additional revenue is so obviously missing.
We need to keep telling our legislators to come up with additional funding that doesn't risk other needs and actually adds money to Minnesota’s highway trust fund.