Elton Hills Bridge

Traffic is restricted to the center two lanes of the Elton Hills Drive bridge over the South Fork of the Zumbro River. The two outside lanes and the north sidewalk are closed because pier caps are crumbling.

You get what you pay for, and in the case of Minnesota's infrastructure, we haven't paid nearly enough to maintain what we have.

That's why state officials and lawmakers are looking at unprecedented numbers when considering state bonding recommendations for the 2020 legislative session.

Public facilities, especially roads and bridges, are deteriorating. Everyone who drives on the roads knows that, local government officials know that, even legislators know that. But earlier this year, the Minnesota Senate refused to consider an increase in the gas tax to pump money into repair of roads and bridges.

So now we're staring at even more crumbling roads and higher costs for repair. All kinds of public infrastructure — municipal buildings, fire halls, parks and schools — need work too.

"Maintenance is a place where it's easy not to spend because we can always do it next year," said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who is chairman of the Senate's Capital Investment Committee. "Well, in some respects we've waited for too many years."

Now we're at the point where legislators have deferred maintenance on so much of the state's infrastructure for so long that we're in a deep hole. It will be even more expensive to catch up.

Feel free to gasp at the dollar amounts being mentioned in St. Paul. State agencies, including the DNR, are requesting $4 billion for public works projects; cities and counties want $1.3 billion for both new projects and maintenance; and state colleges and universities are said to need $1.6 billion every two years just to maintain and repair buildings.

Keep in mind that the Legislature has authorized an average of $775 million in borrowing projects in even-numbered years like 2020. So there's virtually no chance everybody will get close to what they say they need. Gov. Tim Walz is expected to propose a bonding bill of less than $2 billion. Favorable interest rates on state bonds should make that amount manageable.

Even at that, though, the state will continue to fall behind on maintenance that should have been done all along. 

Nobody likes tax increases. But short-sighted government has a price as well. When it comes to Minnesota's infrastructure, we've been guilty of refusing to look down the road. It's time to get serious about fixing our public investments.

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