The big issue: Transportation

by April Scheinoha

    Polk County has 970 miles of county roads and 2,000 miles of township roads. That’s not even including state and federal roads in the county. Funding for those roads, as well as other roads in northwest Minnesota, was the topic of a regional meeting Wednesday, May 4.
    Citing that statistic, Polk County Commissioner Craig Buness noted the high cost of repaving and overlaying Polk County roads. “It’s an awful big issue,” he said.
    Buness was among 20 people who attended a transportation funding meeting hosted by the Association of Minnesota Counties. The meeting was held at the Joint Operations Facility in Thief River Falls.
    Similar conversations are occurring across the state. “Every county has an unmet need in transportation,” said Julie Ring, AMC executive director.
    The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce intends to partner with AMC in its efforts. Rick Trontvet, Minnesota Chamber president and Digi-Key employee, said, “I think collaboration is key.” He added that compromises may be necessary for both sides.
    Gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees help fund transportation projects. Currently, the state gasoline tax is 28.6 cents per gallon. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.
    Craig Collison, District 2 engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the gasoline taxes haven’t increased since 1991. At that time, asphalt was $20 per ton. Now, he said, MnDOT would be happy with a price of $40 per ton. At the same time, traffic volumes have increased slightly after flattening in 2007. Cars are also more efficient, decreasing the amount of gasoline taxes collected.
    “The revenue has not kept up with inflation,” Collison said.
    Vehicle registration fees also haven’t increased. In Minnesota, owners pay a minimum of $35 to register vehicles 10 years old and older. Pennington County Commissioner Don Jensen said that amount has been $35 since 1983. If that amount were indexed to inflation, Jensen said it would be a minimum of $83 today. “I think there’s room there for expansion,” he said.
    Jensen also referred to the emergence of electric cars, which pay vehicle registration fees but not gasoline taxes. He suggested a minimum rate of $50 to $60 for vehicle registration.
    Local counties have investigated the possibility of additional transportation funding and, in some cases, made changes. Pennington County has a wheelage tax, which was instituted about two years ago. County Engineer Mike Flaagan said the wheelage tax raises about $140,000 per year to maintain the local road system.
    Pennington County leaders have considered a sales tax that would be used to improve County Road 62 and CR 77, the latter between CR 64 and CR 65 north of Thief River Falls.
    “The property owners weren’t interested and the city wasn’t interested in annexing further, so it got thrown back into our lap,” Flaagan said about CR 62.
    Instead, the county now plans to overlay CR 62. Flaagan said the county will hopefully get another five to 10 years out of the road with an overlay. He didn’t close the book on other CR 62 improvements in the future. If there were more development of the area in the future, Flaagan noted that property owners may request annexation in the future.
    Right now, Pennington County engages in a quite a bit of rehabilitation of its roadways. Flaagan said his department overlays roadways year after year to maintain the quality of the ride.
    Flaagan said the county hopes to build up its transportation system to a 10-ton system. However, that takes time. If the county were to construct four to five miles of roadways per year, he said the cost would eat up all of his annual funding.
    Fellow county engineers noted that the transition to 10-ton transportation corridors are meant to increase safety and ensure freight gets to and from market. “It’s not to get some lavish system in place,” said Marshall County Engineer Lon Aune, who noted that the system was initially a seven- to nine-ton system.
    Wheelage and sales taxes don’t work for every county. Some counties would raise barely enough for a stop sign, said Ramsey County Jim McDonough, a former AMC president.
    In Kittson County, little money would be raised through a local sales tax. County Commissioner Joe Bouvette said the county would be lucky to raise enough money to pave a mile if the project didn’t involve reconstruction.
    Kittson County leaders considered a sales tax for such things as fertilizer and farm equipment to raise funds for transportation needs. Bouvette noted that farmers are big users of the county roads and probably do the most damage to them. Farmers weren’t in favor of such a plan.
    Counties aren’t alone in their quest for additional funding. Collison noted that about 85 percent of MnDOT’s pavements in northwest Minnesota are in good condition now. By 2023, without any additional money for transportation, that number is expected to be about 50 percent and more maintenance would be required.
    Collison noted that large and small manufacturers have spoken about the need for modernization of the highways in their areas. “There’s not a lot of money in our budget to get to those needs,” he said.
    Collison also pointed to the impact of city improvement projects on state roadways. He noted that MnDOT was recently able to accommodate the city of Kelliher when it needed to install new water and sewer lines underneath a state roadway. However, Collison noted that MnDOT won’t always be able to shuffle its road projects to help cities.