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Funding Issues in Minnesota Are Felt Across Country

Tue January 19, 2010 - Midwest Edition
Giles Lambertson

As Minnesota addresses its highway construction needs, so might the country. The upper Midwestern state, like the United States, starts 2011 with new Republican clout in the capitol, conservative resistance to flagrant earmarks, and way more projects than project dollars.

To illustrate highway funding issues facing the United States, CEG decided to ratchet down the national confrontation to state and local levels. Specifically, what lessons are there for Washington in a southern Minnesota standoff over a dangerous stretch of U.S. Hwy. 14?

Not many, as it turns out. CEG found that similar political roadblocks frustrate policy-making at the state and national levels. But the numbers facing legislators in St. Paul are smaller than in Washington and, hence, more comprehendible. The state’s road-building process also seems somewhat less fractured by special interest wedges, its deadlocks perhaps less intractable.

Hwy. 14 runs from the northwest Cook County suburbs of Chicago to Yellowstone National Park. Its passage through Minnesota is the main east-west roadway across the southern end of the state besides Interstate 90. Hwy. 14 jogs north at Mankato and then runs through the Minnesota River valley before crossing the river at New Ulm.

The area is largely agricultural with some attendant agribusinesses, including a large Archer Daniels Midland Co. soybean processing plant. However, farms are not the sole driver of the economy. Mankato is growing into a regional center. New Ulm already is a trucking hub and home to such diverse manufacturers as 3M and Associated Milk Producers Incorporated.

Outstate vs. Metro

The urban-rural split in Minnesota is a significant factor in the state’s highway decision-making. Fully 60 percent of Minnesota’s 5.3 million people live in the “Twin Cities” metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The area ranks as the 15th largest urban agglomeration in the United States. It is where the legislature meets and 3M, Target and U.S. Bancorp, among other corporations, are headquartered.

“There is a pretty high level of competition for road project funds, certainly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,” said Wendell Sande, city administrator of North Mankato. He goes on to describe a rich-get-richer scenario, where the Twin Cities’ constant growth and attraction to rural Minnesotans keeps its highway work atop the priority list.

Consequently, completing a six-lane beltway around the metro area is a popular funding priority for many Minnesota public officials and citizens. A much lower priority is Hwy. 14, an interregional corridor 80 miles away with serious traffic problems. Work on the Twin Cities beltway dates back 80 years, but complaints about U.S. 14, particularly between New Ulm and Mankato, go back 40 years.

The attention paid Twin Cities projects has occurred despite bipartisan efforts of elected representatives along Hwy. 14. A recent backer is Rep. Terry Morrow, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. The Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party member has lobbied hard on behalf of the highway. As one of four newly named minority party whips in the House, he is positioned to boost the issue in legislative huddles this session.

Another key player has been North Mankato Mayor Gary Zellmer, though his role is apt to diminish following an election defeat in November. Zellmer was president of the U.S. Highway 14 Partnership, a 13-year-old lobbying group dedicated to upgrading U.S. 14 from New Ulm through Mankato to Rochester. Its membership includes 20 communities and assorted businesses.

Fatalities and Rankings

One reason the former mayor has pushed for the highway improvements is safety. He knows the situation first hand. His brother-in-law and an executive from Zellmer’s workplace are among the approximately 140 people who have died during the last 20 years on U.S. 14 — three-quarters of them on the 24-mi. leg between New Ulm and Mankato.

“I think the highway has been pushed for many reasons, but the real tragedy is that this road is dangerous,” he said. “We are dying on it.”

His brother-in-law was killed when the man’s vehicle ran head-on into a truck, not an unusual occurrence on the two-lane highway. That’s because at least 10 percent of the 12,000 vehicles on any given day are tractor-trailer and straight rigs. Furthermore, stretches of the road either wind along the edge of the river or intersect north-south county and township roads at an angle, which produce rash passing decisions and dangerous blind intersections. The highway’s mortality rate ranks high among Minnesota roadways.

Despite that fatality record, however, U.S. 14 didn’t even make it on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s latest 20-year plan.

The department ranks investments in three categories: (1) safety, (2) preservation (maintenance) and (3) mobility (improving and expanding roadways).

Unfortunately for promoters of 14, the highway’s road straightening and widening fall into the bottom category. While the fatality rate boosts the highway’s funding chances, it is not enough to overcome resistance to spending more than $300 million on the roadway.

The traffic death of a 21-year-old Minnesota National Guardsman last August did momentarily jumpstart the process. Zellmer was disturbed by the fatality and complained to Morrow, who in turn wrote to DOT Commissioner Tom Sorel and declared, “Enough is enough.” Local and state officials subsequently huddled and at the end of it Morrow announced, “We have finally reached the end of the tunnel.”

The legislator might have been guilty of election year overstatement. What DOT finally announced this month was $40 million for an interchange and for upgrading 2 mi. of highway. The upgrade is an obvious response to the latest fatality, but it also is a continuation of the piecemeal strategy that has marked Hwy. 14 work for decades.

Furthermore, Zellmer believes the patchwork of new and old highway sections actually is contributing to the problem. “You get some miles done and then it sort of just ends. What we have found is that accidents increase and fatalities increase in the switchbacks from two-lane to four-lane and back to two-lane. That’s why we are trying to get it all completed.”

The Highway 14 Partnership, perhaps seeing DOT’s relatively fast response to the latest fatality, decided this month to stress safety in future promotions. Partnership member J.D. Burton of Owatonna was quoted in the Owatonna newspaper explaining the change to other members.

“Everybody makes the economic development argument. We can’t distinguish ourselves there,” Burton said, so the Partnership instead will play up the danger of driving the roadway.

Thus does the coalition put itself in the awkward position of banking on death and injury to win additional funds.

Earmarking Pros and Cons

The Department of Transportation’s voluminous 20-year planning document seems clinical in its approach to funding and efficient in its dispatch. However, when a clearly dangerous leg of Hwy. 14 doesn’t even make it on the 20-year plan, skeptics are born. When a fatality suddenly leads to discovery of $40 million for a quick fix, skeptics proliferate. Clearly, subjective judgments are being made at various points in the highway funding process.

That said, Minnesota’s highway funding system is cleaner than some.

“It is a pretty nonpartisan process,” said Phil Raines, director of legislative and public affairs for Minnesota Associated Builders and Contractors. Raines is satisfied that Minnesota’s “culture” mitigates against wholesale corruption of the process.

“It’s not like in some states where you have projects slipped into a bill,” he said. “We don’t do that in Minnesota.”

Oops. What Raines describes is precisely what happened in 2008.

At that time, Republican Rep. Rod Hamilton crossed party lines to vote with the then-DFL majority and override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase. Hamilton switched sides when he was promised that state Hwy. 60 in his district would move to the top of a DOT funding list. When the political smoke cleared, the special funding proviso stood.

The result: further delay of work on the most dangerous portion of U.S. 14.

“We did get some bonding funds for that Hwy. 60 work, though not enough to do all of it,” said Rebecca Arndt, DOT public information officer in the Mankato office. “The District 7 funding budget is being used to complete it and once we finish the Hwy. 14 piece east of Mankato, we won’t have the funds lined up to do the work on 14 going west.”

Despite that incident, Raines believes in Minnesota’s track record as a systematic funder of transportation. “I will take the Minnesota system over the federal system any day. The federal system is betrayed by a lot of earmarking and political influence. A great example is right here in the great state of Minnesota… our former transportation chairman, ” he said from St. Paul between legislative meetings.

Raines alluded to the career of U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota congressman who served the 8th District for 36 years till defeated last November. Oberstar was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and was notably successful at bringing highway funding back to Minnesota.

“I don’t want to bash the 8th District but it got a lot of project money,” Raines said. “If Oberstar had represented the district with Hwy. 14 in it, the highway would have been done already. It would have been done 10 years ago. I don’t think that’s a good process. Funding should be based on what is most critical, what creates the most movement for the least amount of cost.”

Not everyone agrees. Tim Worke, for example, seems more accepting of earmarking in general and Oberstar’s record in particular. Worke, who is director of the transportation and highway division of Minnesota Associated General Contractors, is familiar with the U.S. 14 situation, having grown up along the roadway before working at DOT for 17 years.

“Rep. Oberstar had several roads in his district that were similar to Hwy. 14 and they are still undone, including Trunk Hwy. 8. Oberstar has improved that corridor immensely, but it still is one of the most dangerous roads in the state. Why wouldn’t he have done that by now?”

Actually, in the first moments after his defeat, Oberstar specifically cited the upgrading of Hwy. 8 north of the Twin Cities among a legacy of accomplishments. “Lives are saved every year on Highway 8 in Chisago County for the improvements that I brought at a citizens committee request,” he told reporters.

While Worke doesn’t dispute that Oberstar brought a lot of earmarked money to the 8th District, he said he believes that the state’s roadways generally benefited from the congressman’s efforts. “I elect a congressman to be an advocate for issues that are important to me. I’m not sure we do ourselves a service when we say that elected officials should not have a role in transportation funding.”

Worke acknowledged that state legislators traditionally have been more reserved about directing how money should be spent. They do so, he said, out of concern that “all of a sudden they will have a food fight on their hands that they can’t manage.”

New Political Realities

Minnesotans are in the same position as the rest of America: divided government. Their legislature suddenly has far more Republican influence than prior to November, but the state’s executive mansion has been turned over to a DFL governor for the first time in two decades. The dynamics of passing and signing into law new transportation bills have changed dramatically in St. Paul.

The GOP retook the Minnesota House after a 4-year hiatus and won a majority in the Senate for the first time in three decades. The consequences of this stark political change could be pretty sweeping if Republicans really are serious about changing the culture of spending. Yet clashes over spending are assured with new Gov. Mark Dayton already proposing taxes on the wealthy to overcome a $6.2 billion budget deficit.

The expectation is that legislative belt-tightening will ensue, unless Dayton successfully vetoes it. Some major cuts in programming are a distinct possibility. Even though highway and bridge funding is in a dedicated account, auxiliary appropriations are not as apt to be forthcoming. On the other hand, more public-private construction partnerships could be in the offing.

With the defeat of Oberstar, earmarked federal funds for highways are far less likely to be channeled to St. Paul from Washington. Yet the new Republican leadership of the House in Washington might give GOP peers in Minnesota special consideration — if they can do so within a new, more circumspect, spending framework.

This all sounds familiar to anyone monitoring the political environment in Washington, where divided government returns after a two-year absence. In St. Paul, it might mean that the deck chairs only have been moved around and the good ship Minnesota still is sinking.

The unresolved question for Washington as well as Minnesota is how deep the new ethic of austerity runs in the body politick. Do taxpayers have the mettle to demand tough highway funding choices previously kicked down the road? For example, is the public conviction to reduce deficits and shrink the size of government strong enough to back actual prioritizing of highway and bridge projects?

Worke, for one, doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” he said of the idea of entirely deferring spending on one project so that the money can be appropriated to complete a more urgent project, a policy of taking turns.

“The way the system has developed and the way funding structures are put in place, I don’t believe that will happen. It might be possible if we had sufficient resources, but the needs are just so far reaching that you can’t forsake needs in one area of the state for two or three years, even if the other needs are of a higher rank or order.”

Hwy. 14 proponents probably would argue that what Worke described is exactly what has happened to them. That is, a project to make a deadly road safer and a corridor of high economic importance more functional has been forsaken by legislators for years in order to assuage complaints about congestion around St. Paul and other places where constituent clamor carried the day.

Until the first bills are filed in St. Paul and Washington, the impact of the 2011 election on highway funding simply is unclear. Yet Worke is an optimist.

Despite all the horse-trading involved in transportation funding in the past — and maybe in the future — the Minnesota AGC executive refuses to grow cynical.

“I am hopeful,” he said. “And you know what, you can’t look at these issues as an end. You have to believe that some day we are going to arrive, and on that beautiful day, we are going to sit back and say we took care of all the needs despite all the ups and downs along the way.

“It becomes much easier to press ahead when you think that way.”CEG

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