Minnesota’s roads and how we pay for them: A primer.
ST. PAUL — Here’s what you need to know about Minnesota’s roads and bridges as the Legislature prepares to start another debate on how they are paid for:
How many roads does our state have?
Minnesota has more than 140,000 miles of public roads, the fifth-largest number of miles in the United States. If you count each lane separately — so each mile of a two-lane road has two lane miles and a mile of four-lane highway has four lane miles — the state has nearly 300,000 lane miles of roads.
Most of those roads — 116,000 miles, if you ignore the number of lanes — are in rural Minnesota. Fewer than 20 percent are in urban areas.
Almost 80,000 miles are dirt or gravel roads that carry relatively little traffic. But they often bear heavier loads, such as trucks and farm equipment that chew up road surfaces faster than cars.
Minnesota has just 913 miles of interstate highways — less than 1 percent of the state’s total mileage — but they carry 22 percent of the state’s traffic. State and federal highways contain less than 9 percent of the state’s mileage but handle 58 percent of vehicle miles traveled.
The seven-county metro area has only 12 percent of the state’s lane mileage, but it accounts for nearly half of the state’s traffic. Greater Minnesota roads contain 88 percent of the state’s mileage and carry 52 percent of the vehicle miles traveled.
Minnesota also has 19,776 bridges. Local governments own 15,187 of those spans, and the state holds the rest.
Who pays for our roads?
The short answer is taxpayers. The long answer is complicated.
In Minnesota, “user fees” provide most of the money for highways, but not for local roads. The state gas tax provides 28 percent of the highway funding, license tab fees cover 23 percent, motor vehicle sales taxes account for 14 percent, federal aid supplies 24 percent, money borrowed by selling bonds provides 7 percent and other highway revenues account for 3 percent.
The Minnesota Constitution dedicates the user fees generated by gas taxes, tab fees and motor vehicle sales taxes “solely for highway purposes.” That money can’t be used for public transit.
Most city, county and township roads are financed with local taxes, mainly property taxes. State aid helps pay for some of the bigger city streets and county highways.
What shape are our roads and bridges in?
Not too bad — for now.
“The condition of our pavements is in pretty good shape now — not high grade, but they’re good,” state Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said last week. “But the forecasts show that, particularly with pavements, we won’t be able to keep pace.”
In the not-too-distant future, he said, the cost of maintaining pavements will “eat up our budget and then some.”
This year, less than 1 percent of the pavements on Minnesota’s interstate highways and 5 percent on other state highways were in “poor” condition, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
MnDOT doesn’t have data on local road conditions around the state.
Road conditions aren’t the state’s only transportation concern. Traffic congestion is getting worse.
In the Twin Cities, the average driver spends 41 peak hours a year in traffic jams at an average cost of $1,332 per driver, according to a recent study. The metro area has the 17th-worst level of congestion of all U.S. urban regions.
Roads must be maintained or they deteriorate. MnDOT estimates it will need $39 billion over the next 20 years to meet its road performance targets, and it projects it will receive $21 billion from current revenue sources to invest in highways over that time period, resulting in an $18 billion funding gap or nearly $1 billion annual shortfall.
In addition, more than 1,000 bridges are in “poor” condition, and 5 percent are “structurally deficient.”
Over the next 20 years, the state estimates more than $5 billion is needed for bridge maintenance, but only $3 billion is expected under current law, leaving a $2 billion gap or more than $100 million a year.
“Without significant public investment, our roads and bridges will fall into disrepair,” the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in its 2018 report card for Minnesota’s infrastructure. It gave the state’s roads a D+ grade and its bridges a C.
How much more money is needed? Roughly $1 billion a year more than we’re paying now, according to transportation advocates.
How will we pay for it?
There’s the rub. While most state policymakers support spending more on roads and bridges, there’s no consensus on how to raise that money.
Gov.-elect Tim Walz said he will seek to raise the state’s gas tax. He didn’t say how much, but during the campaign he said he’d consider increasing it 10 cents a gallon. Every one cent per gallon the gas tax is raised is projected to bring in about $30 million per year.
The state’s current tax on regular gasoline, diesel fuel and biodiesel is 28.6 cents per gallon. For ethanol-based E-85 it’s 20.25 cents a gallon. That ranks Minnesota’s gas tax as the 24th highest in the nation, near the national average.
Minnesota currently funds most of its roads and bridges with “user fees,” mainly the gas tax, motor vehicle sales taxes and license tab fees.
In 2017, the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to transfer about half the tax revenue from auto part sales from the general fund to transportation projects. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he’d like to see all the transportation-related sales tax revenue transferred — and maybe more.
Now just 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent of general fund money goes to transportation, he continued. “I would increase that to, say, 1.5 percent so we’d see a significant increase in funding for transportation.”
MnDOT Commissioner Zelle argued Newman’s plan most likely would be just a short-term fix.
Using general fund money for transportation “works during periods of surpluses, but when (budgets) start getting tight again, the first thing that gets cut is transportation because it addresses long-term needs and other needs are more immediate,” he said.
The GOP-sponsored 2017 transportation bill transferred $300 million from the general fund during the current two-year budget cycle and $448 million in the next two years to roads and bridges. And it authorized MnDOT to borrow $940 million over four years for transportation projects.
That helps, Zelle said, but it doesn’t guarantee the billions the state’s roads need for maintenance and growth over the long term. He contended — and Walz and DFL legislative leaders agree — the state needs to provide a dedicated source of new revenue for transportation.
What is indexing and could it happen here?
The commissioner said “indexing” (such as automatically adjusting) the gas tax to ensure revenue keeps pace with inflation is one possible solution. Of the 28 states that raised gax taxes in the past five years, 14 have also implemented indexing.
Minnesota is one of several states studying taxes based on the number of miles you drive. “I think that’s coming,” Zelle said.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat who once again will chair the House transportation committee next year, said he supports a gas-tax increase and will also consider mileage-based user fees and higher taxes on fuel producers. “We’re going to look at all the options,” he said.
He also intends to conduct committee hearings around the state to find out what drivers, businesses and local officials want to meet their transportation needs.
Zelle said getting local input is essential to understanding basic needs. “As much as I’ve learned about the big picture, it’s the left-turn lane outside of Nisswa, the median in Highway 61 in White Bear Lake, a new 28th Street exit off of I-35W (in Minneapolis) … it’s a series of individual projects that people really care about,” he said.