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Philosophical differences may tie up transportation package...again
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
March 8, 2002

A House committee has approved a road funding bill, one day after a Senate committee voted for a much larger transportation funding package. The two bills are dramatically different, and transportation advocates doubt the two can be reconciled.

Members of the House Transportation Finance Committee voted 9-5 for a bill that would put an additional $1.25 billion into road projects over the next decade. It would authorize the state to sell trunk highway bonds, which would be repaid with a floating gas-tax increase. The increase would vary each year from a fraction of a cent to five-cents a gallon, depending on the amount needed to pay off the bonds.

The state's 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax hasn't increased since 1988. Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, first proposed the plan back in December. He says given the state's budget shortfall, this is the only way to pay for road projects - and the only plan likely to move forward in the House.

"We got off of dead center to some degree. We could never pass a transportation bill. The other thing is, it doesn't obligate the state bonding capacity; this is trunk highway bonds. And the other thing is, repaying it with gas tax, it's a user tax," he said.

Lieder says the one drawback is that trunk highway bonds can't be used to pay for transit projects. That will make it difficult for some House members to support the bill. And some House Republicans won't support a gas tax increase.

Transportation advocates suspect the plan will stall in the House.

David Olson represents the Minnesota Transportation Coalition, comprised of business groups that back a gas tax increase to fund road and transit projects. He says the prospects for a major transportation funding package this year don't look good.

"We're doing what we've done every year since 1988. We've got the Senate on one side, we've got the House way over on the other side, and every year we end up with nothing. And we don't think that's an acceptable answer," Olson says.

The plan moving through the Senate is about six times the size of the House bill. It calls for $7.6 billion in additional funding for roads and transit projects over the next decade.

"It's the most ambitious, aggressive funding plan ever advanced in the state's history," according to Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, the plan's author, and chair of the Senate Transportation Budget Division. His bill includes a seven-cent a gallon gas tax increase that could rise with inflation in future years, and an increase in license tab fees. It would also ask voters in the metro area to approve a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation needs.

Johnson says this is the year for a sizable transportation package. He says Minnesotans are clamoring for better roads and transit options.

"The public is talking to their legislators, that's number one. Number two, interest rates are very competitive, number three, it'll put literally thousands of people back to work and it'll start to revive this economy again in Minnesota," according to Johnson.

Johnson is optimistic the House and Senate will reach agreement on a transportation funding package.

Gov. Ventura proposed a five-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase in his budget-balancing plan. But it wouldn't mean any new money for transportation projects, because it would simply be used to fill a gap created by Ventura's license tab cuts.

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