Transportation conversation: Roads could soon be in dire state, MnDOT commissioner says at roundtable in Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- If the people of southwest Minnesota think county roads and highways are in bad shape now, just wait and see what happens to them in a decade if no new dollars are invested in transportation.

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Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle answers questions during a Commissioner’s Roundtable Monday morning in Worthington. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON - If the people of southwest Minnesota think county roads and highways are in bad shape now, just wait and see what happens to them in a decade if no new dollars are invested in transportation.

That was the message brought Monday morning to Worthington by Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle. Before a small gathering of county commissioners and city leaders from Rock, Nobles, Jackson and Cottonwood counties, Zelle said though he thinks things are “pretty good” in Minnesota right now, “we are facing a lot of challenges.”
Truck freight and rail traffic are expected to increase 30 percent by 2030, 850 bridges will require significant work by 2025 and more than 1 million new people will reside in the state by 2040, Zelle shared. Meanwhile, unfunded local roads and bridges will need $18 million over the next 20 years.
The state relies heavily on the gas tax to fund transportation projects, but the combination of a fixed tax and more fuel-efficient vehicles has meant less money for the department. At the same time, infrastructure is aging, construction costs have increased and federal funding is uncertain. As Zelle said, it’s a perfect storm.
Within the next 10 years, he said there will be a $6 billion funding gap.

Aging roads, bridges
Zelle said road and bridge funding will be cut nearly in half by 2019 - from nearly $1.3 billion this year to $646 million. That’s bad news for an aging system. Along Interstate 90, stretching from Rock County to Faribault County, there are 100 bridges, all built within the span of a decade. Those bridges are now 50 years old or more and will eventually need some work.

With decreased funding, however, Zelle said maintenance will suffer. Short-term fixes such as thin overlays will be done to get more life out of roads.

“Doing thin overlays is fine. It makes things smooth for a while, but local county engineers know it doesn’t last forever,” Zelle said. “If we were to have our existing funding over the next 20 years and keep our pavement in the same condition, we would need to allocate almost all of our budget just to pavement.”
MnDOT’s budget, however, is supposed to fund more than just roads and bridges. Transit and bike/pedestrian paths also pull from transportation coffers.
Facing an uncertain future with funding, Zelle said community meetings like the one in Worthington are meant to give local leaders an opportunity to discuss where priorities should be if funding isn’t increased.
“We may have to make choices,” he told the group. “One of the choices is that pavements won’t be as good - as smooth - as they were before.
“The vast majority of poor quality roads will be in Greater Minnesota with no new funding,” he added. “There is an unfair, but very real, conundrum for Greater Minnesota.”


Forming a funding plan
When the Minnesota legislature begins its session in March, Zelle anticipates transportation will be addressed. Gov. Mark Dayton has already proposed establishing a long-term investment plan with funds dedicated to transportation that are more predictable than gas tax revenues.
“Gov. Dayton wants long-term, sustainable funding, but he wants (gas prices) competitive with other states,” Zelle said. Nineteen states have raised gas taxes and adjusted for inflation since February 2013, including neighboring Iowa and South Dakota.
Dayton’s plan to generate $10.6 billion in revenue for transportation over the next decade includes $4.4 billion in fuel tax, $1.45 billion in license tab fees, $2 billion in trunk highway bonds (borrowing) and $2.8 billion in a half-cent metro area sales tax for transit. The governor’s proposal allocates $5.38 billion for state trunk highways, $2.35 billion for county, city and township roads, $120 million for Greater Minnesota transit and $75 million for Safe Routes to Schools.
The plan would fully fund preservation, modernization and expansion of the state system, as well as more than 600 projects currently unfunded (330 bridges and 2,200 miles of pavement). It would also include funding constitutionally dedicated for roads and bridges.
Meanwhile, the House GOP plan calls for $7 billion to be generated within 10 years.
“I think the important takeaway is people aren’t arguing at the Capitol about whether there is a need or not,” Zelle said. “Our hope is we don’t get stuck on how we do it, we just figure out there’s got to be a way.”
Zelle said Dayton is flexible, but people need to talk with their legislators, write letters and participate in rallies to increase awareness for transportation funding needs.
“We need your help,” Zelle said. “What I’m selling is a solution, and I’m hoping we do that together. I know representatives at the State Capitol listen to their local citizens.
“We’re trying to be smart - make a case that if we really care about our communities … we can’t push these problems six or 10 years down the road,” Zelle said.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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