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EDITORIAL: New urgency for roads, bridges

The need to fix deteriorating roads and bridges in the state has taken on more urgency.

According to just-released projections from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the funding needed to make the state's transportation system "economically competitive" has increased significantly.

Planning experts working on the Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP) have determined that, during the 20-year period of 2018 to 2037, Minnesota will see a shortfall of $16.3 billion of funding necessary to provide a transportation system that addresses congestion and meets the needs of businesses.

That's an increase of $3.8 billion from the previous MnSHIP Plan, which covered the years 2014 to 2033. The unfunded gap in that plan was $12.5 billion.

"Our planning process is thorough and objective," said MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle. "It is clearly indicating that the growth in revenue will not meet what we need to spend to provide a competitive system by 2037."

Zelle attributes the gap's growth to a number of issues, including:

Legislative inaction. Since the last MnSHIP, there have been four years of legislative inaction on sustained transportation funding.

Aging system. Minnesota's transportation system, the fifth largest in the nation, is coming of age. Half of the state's highways are more than 50 years old and more than a third of all state bridges are also 50 years or older.

Exponential deterioration. The longer the state waits to make necessary investments in critical transportation infrastructure improvements, the faster aging roads and bridges deteriorate. Deferring basic maintenance causes more costly damage to current infrastructure, making their improvements more complex and costly to complete.

Inflation. The cost of materials and labor to fix the system has increased and will continue to do so. A key revenue source for transportation, the state fuel tax, is not indexed to inflation and does not keep pace with rising costs.

To its credit, the Legislature did approve a one-time transportation allocation of $12.5 million during the last session to help cities with populations of less than 5,000, but that's just a tiny drop in a big bucket of need. Legislators must put aside their political in-fighting and work with each other to come up with a long-term transportation funding plan that is sustainable and includes a dedicated source of funding.

For starters, they should approve a proposal from the League of Minnesota Cities that would help large and small cities with street maintenance and reconstruction by imposing a $10 surcharge on license tab renewals. It would be collected by the state and distributed on a formula to all cities. The surcharge would raise about $57 million per year — far short of what is needed but it's a starting point.

Doing nothing or hoping the problem will just go away is the worst option.

"Minnesota's infrastructure will continue to deteriorate without a significant infusion of resources to address critical needs," Zelle said. "There is strong, bipartisan agreement that something must be done to improve transportation funding. It's up to the Legislature to determine that solution, and soon."