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Minnesota's rural highways ranked 49th in nation

Minnesota's rural highways are among the worst in the nation, according to a report released Tuesday by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

The annual report ranked Minnesota 49th out of 50 states based on the condition of its rural interstate roads, according to 2009 data, the most recent information available. The state also ranked 49th in urban interstate congestion. Overall, the state's ranking in the report slipped from 15th in 2007 to 42nd in 2009.

The report measures the condition and cost-effectiveness of state-owned roads in 11 categories, including pavement condition on urban and rural roadways, traffic congestion, deficient bridges, traffic fatalities and total spending per mile of state roads. Minnesota's slide in the ratings primarily had to do with a worsening of pavement conditions for rural and urban highways and an increase in urban interstate congestion, according to study author David Hartgen, emeritus transportation professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

In 2007, only 2.1 percent of the state's rural interstates were rated in poor condition. That number climbed to 9.4 percent in 2009. Similarly, the percentage of urban interstate in poor condition climbed from 1.4 percent in 2008 to 5.73 percent.Also, Minnesota ranked 49th out of 50 for the percentage of urban interstate that is congested.

"I don't think Minnesotans would say offhand that it has the second-worst congestion on urban interstates in the country, but that is what the numbers say," he said.


Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said that while he couldn't address the accuracy of the report's figures, he said the overall trend of pavement condition deteriorating in the state is consistent with state data.

"We have a 12,000-mile system, and sometimes we have to make trade-offs about how we invest the money we have," he said.

That might mean delaying repaving some roadways in order to fund a needed interchange, overpass or bridge. Also, he said it is important to take into account that in 2009 there were three major construction projects underway in the Twin Cities that would have added to traffic congestion.

Transportation funding advocates pointed to the report as further evidence that Minnesota needs to invest more in transportation and transit.

"We're not doing well, and with the projections that we'll have a million more people moving into Minnesota in the next 20 years, that problem is going to get a lot worse unless we start to plan now to try and deal with that kind of congestion," said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

Last session, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton squashed an effort among some Democrats to push for a gas tax increase. Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said the governor has asked MnDOT Commisioner Charles Zelle to spend time traveling the state this year to talk with Minnesotans about ways to invest in transportation.

The state will need to spend at least $39.3 billion during the next 20 years on its transportation system to maintain the status quo, according to a recent report by the Minnesota Transportation Finance Advisory Committee. If the state wants to become economically competitive and build a world-class system, it will take an investment of upwards of $50 billion over the next 20 years.

The transportation budget passed by the DFL-led Legislature this year did not include a significant increase in transportation funding. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he will be urging lawmakers next session to pass a gas tax increase of at least 5 cents per gallon.


"We need to be putting more resources into our transportation system to support and bolster our economy, and we really need to understand that these dollars we invest have a huge return in our personal lives and in our overall state economy in terms of creating jobs and other kinds of opportunities," he said.

The last time lawmakers approved a gas tax increase was in 2008, when Republicans joined the DFL-led Legislature in overriding GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a 5 cents per gallon increase.

Not everyone thinks raising taxes is the best way to address the state's crumbling infrastructure. Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said that when Republicans controlled the Legislature in 2011 to 2013, state revenues increased by $2 billion without any tax increases. He said lawmakers need to focus on growing the state's economy and prioritizing spending.

"We do have to put more money into transportation," Benson said. "That doesn't mean we need to go and raise additional taxes."

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