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Kicking the can down the (crumbling) road: Local officials call for more transportation funding

Officials from area counties, cities and townships discuss transportation issues Friday at a forum hosted by the Association of Minnesota Counties at the Crow Wing County Highway Department. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

The message to the state Legislature on transportation funding from local government officials Friday was clear: more of it, from a sustainable source.

No legislators attended a forum hosted by the Association of Minnesota Counties at the Crow Wing County Highway Department, prompting some to say the meeting amounted to "preaching to the choir."

"I've heard these same concerns for quite a few years," said Donald Niemi, Aitkin County commissioner. "I'm sick and tired of, and the general public is, of the gridlock that you feel down there when you go with well documented, researched problems."

Jack Swanson, president of the county association, said its stance on transportation funding is for it to increase, although there is no advocacy for a particular funding source.

Crow Wing County Engineer Tim Bray said partly in response to legislative inaction on transportation funding last session, the county board approved a local options sales tax to close a large funding gap. The half-cent sales tax went into effect April 1 and its revenues are specifically dedicated to transportation expenditures.

"I bet each one of you has a similar story to tell," Bray said.

John Welle, Aitkin County engineer, said the needs in Aitkin County are great. In 2012, Welle said a recently expired five-year road improvement plan was just 55 percent complete. The county board just approved the 2016-2020 plan, he said, with the goal of finally completing those projects first scheduled in 2006.

"Costs were just outpacing revenues, and everyone was falling behind," Welle said. "We're just kicking the can down the road."

Welle said one-quarter of all paved roads in Aitkin County are more than 20 years old, with the typical lifespan of pavement at 15-20 years.

"We delay these projects year after year and just hope that eventually we get some increased funding to be able to get ahead of the game a little bit," Welle said.

Dan Anderson, Minnesota Department of Transportation district engineer for the central region of the state, said the same issues are occurring with the state highway system.

Anderson said more than 600 identified road and bridge projects go unfunded and the department's focus is shifting toward pavement maintenance instead of reconstruction. Under a scenario with no new funding between 2018-2037, Anderson said MnDOT would eventually dedicate 83 percent of its funding strictly to pavement maintenance. The funding gap existing today is anywhere between $6 billion and $10 billion, he added, and this would only be enough to keep the department on target with its currently planned projects.

With populations and fuel economy increasing and infrastructure continuing to age, Anderson said use is increasing while revenue is not.

"Costs are getting more expensive," Anderson said. "We're just putting out fires as they happen instead of proper planning."

Aitkin County Commissioner Brian Napstad said he believes the Legislature thinks they've offered help to greater Minnesota localities through passage of a law allowing the local option sales tax. Napstad said this option might work for counties with economic centers, such as Crow Wing and St. Louis counties, but Aitkin County faces a different situation.

"I would need help to know where to buy a pair of blue jeans in Aitkin County," Napstad said. "Our residents go to Brainerd or they go to Duluth or they go to Grand Rapids. ... We do not have the ability to raise sustainable funding through this local option sales tax."

Napstad said with an estimated $500,000 in revenue possible from a sales tax, the Aitkin County Board was hesitant to adopt one, fearing passage would be recognized as "acquiescing to the new funding model."

"That situation is exacerbated by the fact that they're creating Duluth to be a powerhouse center of commerce," Napstad said. "There's a blind eye turned toward our smaller, rural counties."

Bill Stearns, Wadena County commissioner, said the Wadena County Board was one of the first to pass a sales tax for transportation. Although it was projected to receive similar returns, Wadena County chose that route, he said, because the funds would be available to use on the county road system—as opposed to the county state aid highway system, which receives funding through a statutorily dedicated fund.

"The Legislature is never going to give Wadena County money for Wadena County roads," Stearns said.

Jeff Hulsether, Brainerd city engineer, said many cities are facing similarly difficult funding situations, although they do not have the ability to levy a sales tax or a wheelage tax in the way counties do.

"If we're ever going to solve our problem here, we're going to have to work together," Hulsether said. "The bottom line is, cities are really hurting right now. We can't seem to get any traction at the Legislature."

Although several joined the chorus in acknowledging a need for additional funding, Napstad added a perspective he said he hardly hears—the flip side of keeping costs down. As a business owner, Napstad said he spends "just as much time on our costs as we do on our revenues."

Napstad pointed to the costs of things such as environmental analyses required for road projects and mandated wages for construction workers as worthy of deeper looks.

Niemi said having attended many gatherings similar to Friday's, he believes it takes a united voice from many stakeholders to make a dent in the problem.

"I have to turn to the voters, the public, that they really stand up and say this has got to stop," Niemi said. "If you want change, you've got to really let your legislator know that this is a big deal. ... You can't quit, you've got to keep on. Sometimes, I think, does it even pay? You're doggone right it does. Silence is acceptance."

Welle had the final word at the forum and said the bottom line of the transportation funding problems facing Minnesota is the risk to public safety.

"I don't think the public even realizes the degree to which our highway system doesn't meet basic safety standards," Welle said. "We could do a road safety audit on those roads and find any number of areas where the roads don't contain the basic safety features."

Welle said proper funding could prevent crashes and reduce the severity of those that occur, but a disconnect exists for the public between taxes and road infrastructure.

"A lot of the public are against tax increases when you ask them that question outright," Welle said. "I don't think they realize not investing in our use-based system is directly resulting in the highways they drive on not being up to safety standards."

Swanson thanked those who shared perspectives at the event.

"We are the choir. Thanks to all who preached today," Swanson said. "They (legislators) all agree there is a need. They simply disagree on how to pay for that."

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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