Construction season—how projects get the green light

From Barb Thoman, Executive Director


With the warmer weather, road construction signs are popping up around the metro and across the state. Construction of the Central Corridor light rail line also resumed this spring. These signs remind me of the big difference in the way roads and transit are paid for in Minnesota.

Funding for expansion of our region’s transit system pales in comparison to the amount available to expand our region’s highways—and the results are obvious on the ground. Our regional transit system is of modest size (especially when compared with competing regions, such as Denver, Toronto, Boston, and Seattle), while the Twin Cities’ regional highway system is one of the nation’s largest on a per capita basis.

New highway projects generally don’t require legislative vote but many transit projects, such as Southwest light rail, wait for legislative approval

Minnesota’s constitution dedicates gasoline taxes, license tab fees, and 60% of the motor vehicle sales tax to state and local roads and bridges, with 62% of this revenue going to MnDOT. An additional $500 million annually, on average, flows from the federal government to roads and bridges. (Local property taxes add roughly $1 billion each year for roads and bridges.)

MnDOT’s dedicated funding allows for a vast number of road projects: 316 in the 2011 construction season. In the Metro area, the projects include:

  • needed pavement repair on I-94
  • a welcome new bridge over I-35E at Maryland Avenue and work on replacement of the Layafette and Hastings bridges over the Mississippi River.
  • expansion of the TH169/I-494 interchange, new interchanges in Savage and Arden Hills, and early work on a new St. Croix River crossing.

For a full list of 2012 metro area highway projects click here (pdf). Because Minnesota has significant dedicated funding for highway maintenance and expansion, the legislature did not have to vote to approve these projects or the funding for them.

State funding for transit is more precarious, affecting bus and rail

Funding for transit is much more precarious than funding for roads and bridges because transit relies to a significant degree on state general fund appropriations and General Obligation bonding – funding that needs to be allocated by the legislature each year. Last year, the legislature cut the two-year general fund allocation to metro transit by $51.8 million.

This year, despite the Governor’s support, the final bonding bill did not include $25 million to support construction of the Southwest light rail transit line. The bonding bill did include $2.5 million for “The Interchange,” a downtown Minneapolis transit hub and $6.4 million for transit facilities in greater Minnesota.

Statewide, transit receives 40% of the motor vehicle sales tax. In five metro area counties, a 1/4-cent sales tax generates about $95 million annually toward the cost of new light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit lines—such as the Central Corridor, Southwest light rail, and the Gateway and Bottineau corridors. As noted, last year the state legislature cut general fund money for bus service, so some of this regional tax revenue was diverted to fill in the gap, preventing a 30% cut in bus service, but slowing down progress on new transit development.



Making the case for transit

Transit for Livable Communities will continue making the case for expanded transportation options. There is still a lot of work to be done if the region wants to build more than one light rail project each decade and if we want a bus system that serves more of our residents.

Why is this important? Because people spend more on transportation (getting to work, school, and other appointments) than on any other household expense other than housing. Providing transportation options—bus, rail, bicycling, and walking—makes it possible to trim this expense and helps families make ends meet. There also are significant health and environmental benefits when a region has a greater reliance on transit, walking, and bicycling.

To show your support for Southwest LRT the next light rail line for the region, click here.

For a summary of transit funding in Minnesota, click here (pdf).