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MN transportation funding runs hot and cold

ST. PAUL — Fixing ice-cold roads and preventing red-hot railcars are Minnesota lawmakers’ transportation priorities.

A House bill would provide $15 million to fill an abundant crop of potholes blamed on the severe winter, with another $20 million to repair and replace state snowplow equipment and fund unexpected snowplow expenses from this winter. The measure also would provide $5 million in the next year, with $2.5 million in each of the next four years, to prepare local public safety workers to deal with potential crude oil train disasters.

A House transportation committee considered the bill late into Wednesday night, but was expected to pass it. A similar Senate bill is expected.

Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, released his transportation funding bill Wednesday, which includes nearly $50 million from the state budget surplus and $78 million from a fund filled with transportation-related taxes. Besides potholes and oil safety, the bill includes money for major highways around the state, improving highway railroad crossings, hiring more state troopers and Capitol security officers.

The provision most Minnesotans would notice is a pothole decline.

“I think every Minnesotan has a story about the state of our roads,” Hornstein said about winter-ravaged highways.

“Sometimes my drive from my district in Shoreview to the state Capitol feels like an amusement ride, with the increase in potholes, and I would bet most Minnesota drivers have had similar experiences,” Democratic Rep. Barb Yarusso said. “This is a common-sense safety issue for our drivers and communities that I would hope can secure broad bipartisan support.”

Hornstein said the pothole money planned for cities and counties is not enough to fill the wicked winter weather budget gap, but it will help.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say the additional $15 million in pothole repairs could fill 50,000 potholes throughout the state.

Scott Peterson of MnDOT said snowplow equipment replacement is not necessarily all because of the polar vortex winter. He said some of the money is for needs not met in past years.

No new taxes are in Hornstein’s bill, but he would increase an existing assessment on railroads and tack it onto pipeline companies to fund crude oil safety measures. It would raise $2.5 million annually.

“I wouldn’t characterize this as a tax or a fee,” Hornstein said, then later called it a “fee.”

Rep. Ron Erhardt, D-Edina, responded: “We used to call a tax a tax and a fee a tax, and now we are going to ‘assessment.’”

Regardless of what it is called, House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he does not find it “onerous.” The speaker has opposed tax and fee increases this year.

Thissen justified the assessment because “railroads are sending these dangerous products through Minnesota.”

The most-discussed “dangerous product” during this legislative session has been North Dakota crude oil, brought into the spotlight by fiery railroad derailments in eastern North Dakota and Quebec. North Dakota crude, which was in tank cars in both derailments, is more highly flammable than other oil.

Hornstein’s bill would provide $2.5 million from the surplus this year and a like amount for the next five years to increase training of firefighters, law enforcement personnel and ambulance service workers to be prepared for oil disasters. The on-going funds would come from the assessment.

New equipment and materials such as fire-fighting foam also could be funded.

The chairman wants to increase the number of state railroad inspectors from one to four or five. Two federal inspectors cover Minnesota and western Wisconsin, and railroads themselves have many more.

The transportation measure would pay for improving railroad crossings, especially on lines that carry hazardous materials.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.