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Rough road ahead for agreement on state transportation funding
Larger view
Twelve-thousand people, many of them contractors and construction workers want Minnesota lawmakers to agree on a transportation financing package this session (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
About six weeks remain in the legislative session, and there are fresh signs Minnesota lawmakers still have major differences over a transportation financing bill. Both Republicans and Democrats seek big spending increases for roads, bridges and transit. Proposals advanced by Democrats include tax increases. Gov.Pawlenty's plan relies more on borrowing. At the federal level an even longer stalemate over transportation spending in Congress is closer to being resolved. Agreement there would bring a record amount of federal transportation dollars to Minnesota.

St. Paul, Minn. — Part of the transportation stalemate in St. Paul is about how much to spend, how fast. Democrats led by Senate Majority leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, say their plan, which includes a gas tax increase, will put more money sooner into maintenance and new lanes. Johnson told a Capitol rally the governor's plan to seek voter approval next year of any transportation tax increases takes too long.

"We'll collect the money in 2007 and it's available in 2008. Ladies and gentlemen, the calendar says it's 2005. We can't wait, we need to do it now so the money starts being collected and we start to fix our roads," Johnson says.

His views won a warm response from an audience with lots of contractors and construction workers whose seasonal livelihoods rely on revenue sooner rather than later.

House speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, assured the audience his fellow Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty are committed to a continuation of the historic transportation spending levels they set in the 2003 state budget.

"We will have a significant transportation package that is balanced between transit and roads and bridges, that is balanced between metro and outstate and that moves the ball forward in the best interest of the state rather than having a stalemate and moving backward," Sviggum said.

Even so, a couple of audience members interrupted Sviggum.

"It's not enough," they shouted.

A few miles away at an event announcing the start of Minnesota's road construction season Gov. Tim Pawlenty threw cold water on calls for gasoline tax increases at a time when pump prices are approaching $2.50 a gallon.

"You know some people are calling for a 10 cent, 20 cent a gallon increase. I just don't think that's very realistic given the times," he says.

Most suggestions have been for a nickel a gallon increase. However, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, the chair of the House transportation finance committee asks why risk a legislative brouhaha when the governor has vowed he'll veto any transportation bill with a tax increase?

"I think we should be realistic about that. While there might be enough votes to pass a gas tax increase in the House, I'm skeptical whether we could override a veto," she says.

Holberg says evidence from around the country shows state gas tax increases just aren't supplying the kind of spending kick they used to. Better vehicle mileage and the popularity of hybrids, she says, are but two reasons.

She says a better plan would be to capture more transportation revenue from vehicle sales taxes.

Differences among Minnesota lawmakers over transportation spending come as members of Congress appear closer to agreement on a federal bill. The result could be a windfall for Minnesota.

A two year delay in passing a new federal transportation bill appears near an end with rumors the U.S. Senate will take up a measure later this month.

Just before Easter, the U.S. House passed a transportation bill which approves spending $284 billion over the next six years. Minnesota's share would be $3.4 billion. That's nearly a billion dollars more than the previous federal transportation law.

State officials say the dramatic increase in federal spending combined with a historic increase in state spending will help Minnesota catch up with much needed maintenance on existing roads and add new lanes to relieve congestion.

Many argue a better state transportation system will the state's economic growth.

University of Minnesota transportation economist Gary Barnes is all for relieving bottlenecks. But beyond that, he says, there's no evidence to show that just adding lanes creates economic development. He challenges the widely held, 'build it and they will come,' view. "Look at that great, wide, smooth Interstate 90 going across South Dakota, and go driving down it sometime and see how many businesses are located along it," Barnes says.

He says borrowing lots of money now to build roads incurs debt that will have to be paid off later by higher taxes creating a climate some businesses may find unattractive.

For the moment, however, his voice is lost in the clamor from business and other interests who are impatient to address what they perceive to be Minnesota's transportation needs.