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Minnesota's roads are wearing out
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Just over a third of Minnesota's state maintained roads are labelled too far gone by MnDoT meaning they're beyond preventive maintenance help and need rebuilding (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
Minnesota's highways are deteriorating faster than the state can maintain them. Transportation Department officials say more than a third of state-maintained roads are in a category called "too far gone." The result is that for the first time in 20 years, the state's road quality index is declining. State officials are counting on Congress to approve a transportation spending bill that will help the state catch up. But others say the cost of stopping the roadway deterioration means raising state taxes.

St. Paul, Minn. — A stretch of U. S. Highway 61 in White Bear Lake is officially "too far gone." It can't be repaired. It needs to be rebuilt. Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Pavement Management Engineer Dave Janisch says the roadway has deteriorated to a point where it can no longer be helped with preventive maintenance.

"It rides extremely rough, most of the joints are faulted, which means the panels are at different heights," he says.

MnDOT is responsible for maintaining 12,000 miles of the state's 135,500 miles of roads and bridges. Counties, cities, tribal governments, federal agencies or private entities maintain the rest. Janisch says highway life expectancy in Minnesota is 30 to 50 years with proper maintenance.

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Image MnDOT pavement engineer Dave Janisch

All around Minnesota, state-maintained roads are falling into disrepair faster than in the past. Thirty-five percent, officials say, are in the too-far-gone category and have to be rebuilt.

The state's official measurement of road quality is called the pavement index. Every year MnDOT checks the state's roads with cameras and lasers for cracks, ridges and other problems. The numbers are crunched and boiled down to a graph.

The trend line on the pavement index graph was heading up, showing improving road quality until a few years ago. Then it leveled off, and now, Dave Janisch says, the line is heading down, showing the state's roads are deteriorating faster than they can be fixed. He says the trend is new.

"I would say it's probably the first time in the last 20 years that we've had three consecutive years of decline," he says.

What's causing the faster road deterioration?

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Image A bumpy ride

Increased traffic is one reason. Janisch says more vehicles are using the roadways. "There's a lot of areas in the metro where the traffic growth has far exceeded what was planned," he says. "So the road never quite makes it to the end of its expected life before it needs some kind of maintenance."

Road experts say skimping on maintenance ends up costing rather than saving money.

Consulting highway engineer Dave Sonnenberg says avoiding routine maintenance makes road problems worse and more expensive to fix. Over time, he says, failure to fix the problems sets up an expensive cycle. "The farther you go down on that curve, the more it costs to maintain and renew, and then the less money of course that you have to put into capital renewal because you're putting more and more money into maintenance," he says.

Why isn't Minnesota spending what it costs to properly maintain the state's multi-billion dollar investment in roads and bridges?

One reason is lawmakers have approved more money for a hurry up program to build new roads and bridges and expand existing ones to relieve congestion.

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Image The van

State transportation officials say road maintenance is still their top priority and money for maintenance is not being shifted to pay for the expansion.

However, law makers point out that two legislative sessions ago, money for MnDOT's maintenance budget was cut at the same time the Legislature authorized spending for new projects.

Putting the pieces of the transportation spending equation together paints a grim picture. Some of the money for the new projects is borrowed and must be paid back. Some money earmarked for future road and bridge building projects is being spent now.

Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Murphy, a DFLer from Red Wing, says the result is the state faces a massive transportation spending pothole.

"In 2007 we're going to be $400 million short of what we normally are for the year, and that's a huge hole in the budget and we're going to have to figure out how to fix that," he says.

Every option for filling the hole has drawbacks.

One option is to increase the state gasoline tax. Minnesota's rate of 20 cents a gallon hasn't been increased for 16 years. Officials say inflation has eaten away a third of its buying power in that time.

Minnesota's state gas tax is about middle of the pack. Roughly half the states have higher rates. Raising the gas tax would bring in some more money.

However Rob Puentes, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, says around the country gas tax revenue is flattening out.

"We're not driving much less but because the vehicles are more fuel efficient the revenues from the gas that's being consumed is beginning to taper off a bit," he says.

Another option is a sales tax with revenue aimed at transportation. Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Bill Kuisle, a Republican from Rochester, says talk of a higher sales tax immediately draws others who want some of the money.

"Everybody is looking at that increase in revenue, can you fund education, can you fund higher ed, can you fund some of the social programs; so I'm not sure that's all going to be used for just roads and bridges," he says.

MnDOT officials say they'll help fill the transportation spending hole with savings. Spokesman Bob McFarlin says the department is counting on saving $36 million a year by managing the agency more efficiently. He says the money will be used to pay off debt and to match increased federal transportation dollars.

McFarlin says Congress will eventually pass a new federal transportation act from among the several versions being considered. "All of them provide more federal money over the next 6 years than we have received previously," he says.

Congressman James Oberstar says none of the transportation bills before Congress supplies enough money to pay for Minnesota's road and bridge maintenance and expansion needs. The 8th District member of Congress is the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. He says the state needs to do more on its own to find transportation dollars.

"It lags behind other states in raising its fund to match available federal dollars. So if Minnesota does not resort to some self-help and enact an increase in the user fee," he says, "then no matter what the amount of the federal funding the state will have a difficult time making use of the available dollars because they have to be matched with state funds."

There doesn't appear to be an easy or cheap solution for addressing the decline in Minnesota's roads. Besides pressure to take care of what's already built, there's pressure to add new roads at a time when many voters and the governor oppose tax increases. All that is clear is delaying maintenance on Minnesota's existing highways adds miles to the category declared too far gone.

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