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Group campaigns for transportation funding

WORTHINGTON -- With 600 trucks a day traveling Minnesota roadways, Lenny Pippin, CEO of Schwan Food Co., Marshall, realizes the importance of a safe and adequate transportation system.

Pippin was one of a handful of individuals taking part in a press conference at the Worthington Regional Airport Wednesday afternoon campaigning for support of a constitutional amendment on transportation funding.

The Minnesota Legislature voted in 1981 to direct all funds collected through the motor vehicle sales tax toward transportation projects within the state. That legislation, however, has never fully taken effect. Today, approximately 54 percent of the sales tax collected from new and used motor vehicle sales goes into the transportation budget. The remainder enters the state's general fund.

Minnesotans for Better Roads and Transit (MBRT), of which Pippen is an executive committee member, is campaigning to get the public to do what the Legislature failed to complete.

"We're seeking a constitutional amendment that all Minnesotans can vote on to do something the Legislature hasn't done," said Jon Campbell, MBRT co-chair and CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota, adding that the group wants to see 100 percent of the sales tax collected put toward funding roads and transit. As the amendment is written, beginning in 2012, up to 60 percent of the transportation budget would fund road and bridges, with at least 40 percent funding transit.

Campbell praised the constitutional amendment concept because it would fund critical projects without adding another tax for Minnesota residents.

"If we don't keep up with other states with transportation ... we could lose businesses to other states," Campbell said.

MBRT hopes to raise $4 million to help spread its "Vote Yes" message to voters before the Nov. 7 general election.

If voters approved the constitutional amendment on transportation, the remaining 46 percent of sales tax income would be phased in to the transportation budget over a five-year period. By 2011, Pippen said the state would see an estimated $300 million added to the transportation budget on an annual basis.

"Our state's transportation system is critically under built," Pippen said. "I'm here to urge voters of Minnesota -- specifically southwest Minnesota -- to vote yes on Nov. 7 for transportation."

More than 700 state organizations, along with a majority of counties and cities, are already voicing support for the amendment, said Margaret Donahoe, legislative director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

"This will benefit statewide," Donahoe said, adding that counties, cities and rural transit would all see more funding if the amendment were to pass. "The alternate is to continue to see our transit system fall behind."

Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh told MBRT members the City Council signed a resolution in March not to support the transportation amendment.

"There's a concern about the $300 million hole you'll leave in the general fund," Oberloh told the group.

David Olson, MBRT president and president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the money -- although it seems a lot to an individual taxpayer -- makes up less than 1 percent of the state's total budget. He added that by phasing the money into the transportation budget, the state has time to deal with the loss of income to the general fund.

Pippen reiterated that the current funding is inadequate, and something needs to be done to improve transportation in greater Minnesota.

"As we want to grow Minnesota, it's not just about growing the Twin Cities, it's about growing all of Minnesota," he said. "If we don't do anything, the result is that we won't get anything."

Worthington City Council member Roger Nelson told the group that Worthington has tried to get transportation funding for 30 years to complete the Minnesota 60 project, and they're still trying to get money. The fact is that more money is going to the Twin Cities, and projects in greater Minnesota are being overlooked.

"The odds of funding Highway 60 are much greater with $300 million than without," Olson responded.

Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder said getting 100 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax money is bound to help complete transportation projects, although it may fund fewer as a result of the rising costs for construction and fuel.

"To not vote yes on this, I think, would be irresponsible," Schnieder said. "It's important that we get this amendment passed."

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Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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