More from MPR
St. Paul, Minn. — The Itasca Project CEOs, most of them from the private sector, coalesced last year to ensure the Twin Cities remains economically competitive. Their lead effort is a strategy to address the region's growing traffic congestion, and transportation needs in the state. Chairman Jim Campbell says the plan remains a work in progress. How to approach the Legislature remains an issue, but not the only one.
"There's general agreement on the issues, probably 85 percent agreement in the coalition on what needs to be done. It's in the 15 percent area that we sort of get into, "Well, I like this, but I don't like that." And let's face it, everybody likes to do things but not everybody likes to ... pay for them in the same way," says Campbell.
A recent study found Twin Cities congestion costs nearly $1 billion a year in traffic delays.
A draft proposal prepared for an Itasca Project meeting Thursday calls for investing about $750 million annually in roads and transit over 15 years. The draft discusses three potential funding ideas: a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, a half-percent metro area sales tax combined with a 6-cent gas tax increase, and a sales tax on fuel. Additional revenue would come from toll lanes, and higher registration tab fees. The draft also emphasizes making the transportation system much more efficient, and saving as much as $100 million a year.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has been in discussion with the Itasca Project, has a preliminary plan that's broadly similar. The group has settled on a gas tax increase, currently pegged at ten cents a gallon, and opposes hiking the sales tax. The chamber estimates the higher gas tax and tab fees will cost the average Minnesotan about a $1.40 more each week.
Historically, the Twin Cities and rural areas have competed for transportation money. Chamber President David Olson says business people in Greater Minnesota still want their local road problems fixed, but are also complaining that trucks and people get stuck in Twin Cities bottlenecks.
"I had one guy say, 'My sales person does not want to go to the Twin Cities anymore. And they're great, but when they used to make 20 sales calls in a day, they're making eight. And it's cutting into their commissions, and it's driving them crazy,'" says Olson.
I had one guy say, 'My sales person does not want to go to the Twin Cities anymore. And they're great, but when they used to make 20 sales calls in a day, they're making eight. And it's cutting into their commissions, and it's driving them crazy.'
The Chamber also is considering a constitutional amendment to solve what it considers two potential problems. The Minnesota constitution allocates specific portions of gas tax money to state, county, and city roads. Instead, the Chamber wants the new money to fund specific projects, based partly on a list of needs developed by the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
A constitutional amendment also provides a way around Governor Tim Pawlenty's no new taxes pledge. Getting a measure on the ballot requires the legislature's OK, but not the governor's.
Olson says he wants a proposal on the 2006 ballot, with some specificity about the projects the new money would fund. He says that's what worked in other areas.
"I tell you what happened in Denver, [and] what's happened in Texas. They literally have a map on the ballot and they say, 'You know what? This is the increase. This is what it's going to pay for,'" says Olson. "And we think that Minnesotans will respond to that much more favorably than just saying, 'OK, let's give them another ten cents and let's hope that they work on these projects.'"
But observers say passing a constitutional amendment is hard to pull off, especially if the governor does not put his weight behind it. Even if successful, it takes two years to get new money. Opponents include the Association of Minnesota Counties, which is developing its own proposal, and DFLer Steve Murphy, chair of the Senate Transportation Policy and Budget Division. But with no increase in the gas tax since 1988, Murphy says support for one is building.
"The majority of Democrats in the Legislature, and we're starting to get a lot of support from rural Republican legislators to do something in regards to the gas tax, to increase that so we've got more money out there," says Murphy.
But the governor's spokesman, Brian McClung, says Pawlenty will not raise taxes. He says transportation is a priority for the administration, and the state has seen the largest infusion of one-time money for transportation improvements under Pawlenty.
The Itasca Project and the Minnesota Chamber continue to work on their proposals, and plan to take them to the Legislature next year.