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MnDOT commissioner warns of funding shortfall

Greater Minnesota stands to suffer the most if lawmakers fail to pass a comprehensive transportation package in the 2016 legislative session, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle.

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Charlie Zelle, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, leads a discussion on transportation funding Friday in Rochester.
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Greater Minnesota will suffer the most if lawmakers fail to pass a comprehensive transportation package in the 2016 legislative session, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle.

Zelle told a crowd of local officials gathered in Rochester on Friday that MnDOT is on the edge a fiscal cliff. Without additional dollars, the state will have 49 percent less funding for road and bridge construction by 2019. The lack of money will hit Greater Minnesota particularly hard because the state will have to focus its resources on the most heavily-traveled roadways in the state to comply with federal requirements. Most of those roads are in the Twin Cities-metro area.

Over the next 20 years, "if we have a status quo level of investment, 94 percent of the miles that will be in poor condition will be in Greater Minnesota," Zelle said.

Given the stakes, the commissioner said it's critical that local officials urge lawmakers to pass a comprehensive transportation funding bill.

"We need to hold our legislators and hold our governor accountable. Saying that we just couldn't make an agreement really should be an alternative. We have to have an agreement," Zelle said.

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Last session, Republicans and DFL lawmakers failed to agree on a transportation funding plan. One of the biggest areas of disagreement centered on whether to move ahead with a gas tax hike. House Republicans' backed a $7 billion, 10-year plan funded without any tax increases. A large chunk of the plan's funding would come from existing taxes on auto parts, cars, rental cars and leased vehicles.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats put forward very similar transportation plans. Dayton's $11 billion proposal included a tax increase on gasoline at the wholesale level and half cent metro-area sales tax hike for transit. Earlier this month, Dayton said efforts to pass a gas tax increase are likely "dead."

Zelle said the state needs $4 billion of additional funding over the next 10 years simply to maintain existing infrastructure. An additional $6 billion in funding would allow for investments in key projects, including the long-sought expansion of U.S. 14.

House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said in an interview on Friday he is skeptical that the funding situation is as "dire" as Zelle is making it sound.

"In the efforts of getting a transportation package done, it concerns me we are still hung up on trying to create a divide on what the need is," he said.

Kelly said he is optimistic a deal can be reached because the governor has been willing to acknowledge a gas tax hike is not politically feasible. He said there is no appetite for such an increase among House Republicans.

"I would just agree with the governor that the tax issue discussion is gone, but that doesn't suggest that we're not willing to fund transportation in a responsible, sustainable way," Kelly said.

Olmsted County Commissioner Jim Bier said it's critical that lawmakers take action next session to boost road funding. Bier noted that the county recently imposed a half-cent sales tax and $10 wheelage fee to help pay for critical road maintenance.

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"I'm not a tax and spend guy. I think people that know me now that I'm fairly conservative. But if we want to be able to move products and people to work and move our products from our farms to market, we've got to have a decent transportation system. We've not kept up," Bier said.

Winona County Commissioner Steve Jacob said transportation remains the number one issue he hears about from constitutents. He said he has met with township officials and asked them if they would be OK with a tax increase if the money went to improving roadways.

"It's been unanimous at every township I've been to. If you are truly going to give that money to my roads and bridges, I support it if that's what it takes to fix my roads," Jacob said.

DFL legislative candidate Thomas Trehus, who is challenging Preston GOP Rep. Greg Davids, said it was "irresponsible" of the governor to say the gas tax is dead.

Trehus said, "I think we need to be serious about our funding sources and that does require compromise."

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