by Debbie Griffin
A group concerned about transportation gathered the morning of Feb. 15 at the North Branch library to discuss dwindling federal funds and how that impacts state and local systems.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, representing the 8th District of Minnesota – who is also a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as the Subcommittee on Highway and Transit – and attended the round-table meeting.
Discussion moderator and Minnesota Transportation Alliance Executive Director Margaret Donahoe explained federal transportation funding has decreased dramatically and states can’t make up the difference fast enough. She and Nolan acknowledged and emphasized how vital transportation is – from port to highway – for business, jobs and residents.
“We wanted to do this today because we face some real challenges with funding,” Donahoe said.
The MTA coordinates, educates and advocates for safe, efficient transportation. Its members help plan, design, build and operate the state’s transportation system and may include governments, businesses, labor, industry representatives, transit and rail systems, waterways and airports.
A panel of local people joined the discussion: Chisago County Engineer and Public Works Director Joe Triplett; Chisago-Isanti Heartland Express Director Craig Rempp; Highway 8 Task Force Member Mark Wolcott; and Highway 70 Coalition member Lynn Zeleny, from Rock Creek.
Hosts make the case
All discussion participants acknowledged the transportation-authorization bill, Map-21, that extends federal funding to states. It expires in September, and Nolan said lawmakers might extend the funding for a year. The problem undergoes a snowball effect with unfunded projects now plus increasing need and costs in the future.
“We need a bill that will start to solve the problem instead of kicking the can down the road,” Donahoe said.
She said revenue from the federal gas tax continues to decrease as vehicles become more efficient. Donahoe said there hasn’t been an increase to the fuel tax since 1993, but California Sen. Barbara Boxer has suggested one.
A handout described how eight states have approved a per-gallon fuel-sales tax, and Donahoe suggests that Minnesota should take similar action this legislative session. She said the increase is a solution in which everyone who uses roads helps to solve problems.
Nolan mentioned Afghanistan and the war, emphasizing that $100 billion have gone toward infrastructure there, with disappointing results.
“It does relate to this,” he clarified, “because we’re talking about ‘where are we going to get the money?’”
Triplett said everybody knows the needs “just by driving down the roads.” He said the culture is one of commuters, farmers and sand-hauling trucks, leading to roads that require frequent maintenance and “pavement preservation” efforts.
He said Highway 8 is an example of a roadway with “significant safety issues” and no funding. It bears some 12,000-18,000 vehicles per day, but Triplett sees potential good in those numbers.
“I see that as an incredible economic opportunity,” he said.
Wolcott said the Highway 8 task force formed in 1989 after a string of bad accidents. He said everyone is thankful for the safety improvements and a decrease in fatalities, but fewer deaths on the road have also led to less funding.
He said the time to implement a solution such as passing lanes or expansion would be now, before the road gets any busier. He said the task force has a wish list of projects, and there’s a study underway to see how past improvements have helped.
“I should say, two previous (wish) lists have been fulfilled,” Wolcott said.
Rempp said the service is funded through a joint powers agreement between the two counties and is fulfilling about 50-60 percent of existing need.
Rempp said most trips involve work, school, medical appointments or shopping. Senior citizens and disabled people are a big client base, and about 40 percent of the 62,000 trips and 485,000 miles last year were work related. Locals need more options for meeting downtown buses, and funding cuts already canceled plans for expansion into the Highway 65 corridor.
“We’re losing ground fast,” he said. “It’s a concern statewide.”
Zeleny said crucial maintenance has already been delayed in her area, which sits at the “very bottom” of MnDOT’s District 1-Duluth. She said part of the problem is the state analyzes traffic on Tuesday and Wednesday, but it is heaviest Thursday through Sunday as big numbers of people travel to and from cabins.
She said there are dangerous curves and humps, people don’t stop at the signs, sand-hauling trucks make sometimes a dozen trips per hour, and the surface will only get worse throughout spring. There was another fatality on the highway last summer.
“Our road has been neglected,” she said.
Chisago County Commissioner Ben Montzka mentioned the immediate need for funding to improve the Stacy interchange.
“This is a road that’s functionally obsolete,” he said.
One man said sand fracking creates good by reducing the nation’s dependency on foreign oil, but stated, “the roads are getting pounded.”
He suggested an allocation of money to fix the roads bearing those sand-truck loads. He said the oil product benefits everyone, so it should not be only the locals paying for it.
North Branch Mayor Ron Lindquist said the city needs another exit north of Highway 95. He said the sand-hauling trucks should be kept on the freeway, which is designed to bear the heavy loads.