A New Legislature: Transportation Enjoys Dedicated Funds

The transportation committees, in some ways, may be the envy of the Minnesota Legislature.

While other committees struggle to plug a $6.2 billion budget gap, most of the $5.8 billion transportation budget is from funds dedicated to roads, transit and other transportation needs. State gasoline tax proceeds and other such revenue used to fund transportation may be declining a bit, but they remain stronger than the overall state budget and cannot be used to fix the budget problem.

“Transportation is going to continue to chug on,” said Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, the incoming chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

With Republicans preparing to take over the House and Senate, legislative leaders do not have firm plans for most committees. That is especially true in the Senate, where Republicans have not been in charge for four decades.

But there are some things easy to predict. For instance, state budget woes mean transportation leaders will not be able to get new money from the state General Fund. And the little General Fund money transportation receives could be in danger.

Two major questions await transportation committee members, many of whom are new to the committees and even to the Legislature.

One question is how much federal money to expect. Minnesota has received about $600 million a year, said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, who will be House Transportation Chairman. But Congress is preparing to write a new transportation funding bill, leaving future payments in doubt.

Gimse said no federal money should be lost in the two-year budget Minnesota legislators will write in the coming months.

The other big question lawmakers face is how much to spend on state transportation projects.

Traditionally, Minnesota has spent cash to build and improve roads and for other transportation needs. But in recent years Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other Republicans pushed using bonding, in which the state borrows money and pays it back over two or three decades.

“We just came out of six or seven years of a tremendous amount of new construction,” Beard said, mostly funded by bonding. “We are going to be hard pressed to keep up the volume, but we are going to try.”

During his campaign, Gov.-elect Mark Dayton proposed using federal funds to back transportation construction loans.

But Gimse said borrowing more money could be a problem. The Minnesota Department of Transportation tells him that the state already is pushing its transportation debt limit.

Gimse, who has not met Dayton, said he has no problem with the new governor. “I can work with anybody.”

Dayton got off to a good start with Gimse and Beard by appointing Tom Sorel to another stint as transportation commissioner. Sorel has been the most popular of Pawlenty’s appointees with Democrats and Dayton named Sorel to the job before he could accept another offer.

Bus systems, which get less attention than roads, may be a big part of 2011 committee meetings.

“It is time to have a long talk about how we integrate the bus systems, particularly throughout the state,” Beard said.

An audit showed transit system management problems that lawmakers may investigate.

Beard said lawmakers also may want to look at why it costs more to build roads in Minnesota. Iowa and Minnesota both are expanding Highway 60, but it costs $3 million a mile in Iowa and $9 million in Minnesota, he said.

Overall, Gimse sees little transportation change coming in 2011.

“The lines have been pretty well drawn,” he said. “I don’t see us upsetting the apple cart.”

One idea Gimse put forth is to find ways to use transportation to help improve the state’s economy.

“Transportation needs to respond to that need,” he said.