Do they drop bombs here? Why Minnesota roads are the way they are

Why Minnesota roads are the way they are

If you have lived in Minnesota for any amount of time, you have eventually come to the realization that there are only really two seasons here: The first season is called survival, aka winter, and the second is known as frustration, aka road construction. The moment weather gets somewhat comfortable, the familiar flashing orange lights, orange cones, and road closures start popping up all across Minnesota.

I’ve often wondered if there was any kind of a rhyme or reason to their planning. Is there a budget? Do they make decisions based on randomly throwing darts at a dart board?

So, I did some digging and found out that there are actually four plans: There is the overarching, high-level Minnesota Go 50-Year vision that is basically where we would like for all our our roads and other MNDOT projects to be in the long term. Within that 50-year plan is the 20-year Minnesota State Highway Improvement Plan, or MnSHIP for short. The last two plans are the 10-year Capital Highway Investment Plan (CHIP) and the State Transportation Improvement Plan, which is the first four years of CHIP.

Roads and construction

The investment into projects and what is slated to be done is all based on investment categories in the MnSHIP plan. There are 14 categories for the plan and range from Pavement and Bridge Condition to Freight, Bicycle Infrastructure and Regional and Community Improvement Products. The selection of projects from these categories is done by MNDot’s districts. There are eight districts in Minnesota, seven greater Minnesota districts, and one Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan District. Information about each district can be found here.

The projects selected by each district then are presented in the 10-year CHIP plan for the state. Every year the CHIP is revisited and updated by each district. The updates made will talk to project updates and revisions as well as the current condition and of our roads and other infrastructure systems. The projects selected in the CHIP are then implemented every year through the STIP. The STIP documents all funding and the projects that will be undertaken.

The main reason for what seems to be a steady stream of never-ending projects is how bad our road infrastructure has been allowed to get in the past. When funding had been tight in the past, road projects were often the first thing to fall under the hammer. As pointed out in this article by MPR, a main problem with funding is the fact that most people do not believe an increase in the gas tax, at a federal or state level, will be spent correctly. The best example of this distrust can be see after the 2005 federal highway bill that was written; this bill included 6,371 earmarks added to it, the one that is most known is Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere.”

Our own Minnesota Transportation department has said that construction spending has gone up 30% while funding has stayed level. The Minnesota Department of Transportation would need 39 billion dollars in order to complete all plans in every category over the next 20 years. With inflation and construction costs on the rise and a revenue of only 21 billion dollars during that time frame, they will have a deficit of approximately 18 billion dollars. The majority of their revenue over the next 20 years will go to keeping the 12,000 miles of roads and bridges in working order and structurally sound.

Part of the under-funding of MnDOT has to do with the fact that we as people are not buying as much gasoline as we use to. Our vehicles have gotten to be much more fuel-efficient than in the past. With this increase in efficiency, we are not buying as much gasoline as we use to, and with Americans as a whole saying they want to limit our reliance on fossil fuels, there will need to be an alternative revenue generator developed in order to cover costs.

One possible solution for the financing of our road projects would be to allow private organizations to invest into our road projects. These types of relationships are known as Public Private Partnerships. The issue is that there is a certain level of knowledge that is needed to make sure that these types of investor relationships make sense for us taxpayers.  We do have a federal agency within the Treasury Department that works on projects like this for foreign countries, but they are not allowed to give this same advice and analysis to U.S. state and local governments.  More information on Public Private Partnerships can be found here.

At the end of the day, a decision will need to be made. One choice is we as taxpayers foot the bill with an increase in state gasoline tax. Another other option is for local and state governments to allow outside investors to participate in Public Private Partnerships. With our roads steadily declining, and an 18 billion dollar shortfall predicted, a decision will need to be made so we can all get to where we want to as efficiently as possible.

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