ST. PAUL - A gas tax hike or other funding sources aimed at helping projects like Highway 14's four-lane expansion appear unlikely to pass during this session of the Minnesota Legislature. As a result , Highway 14 advocates are expressing serious anxiety that the highway will once again go without help due to politically motivated decisions.
The current situation resulted from the Minnesota House and Senate Transportation Finance committees pulling rural and metro elements of their omnibus bills seeking to increase transportation funding, after Gov. Mark Dayton reiterated his opposition to a statewide gas tax hike.
The most important element relating to Highway 14 that was pulled was a proposed 5-cent increase in the statewide gas tax to create a "corridors of commerce" fund, which would cover up to 20 percent of highway corridor expansion projects that enhance commerce in the related areas. Highway 14 was specifically held up as a prime example of a project to receive the funds during debates.
The Senate version of the Transportation Finance omnibus bill introduced a "status quo" version of the bill that did not include any new funding elements.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, who authored the gas tax proposal, introduced the House version Friday with no gas tax, but a few small highway project funding proposals for counties. The first part involved a wheelage tax allowing counties to charge $10 annually for ownership of a vehicle. The proposal also allows counties, if they wish, to increase that amount to a maximum of $20 per person in 2018. The second portion allows counties to pass a one half of one percent sales tax in their borders to finance only specific transportation projects. The wording will allow this to be enacted through a resolution or after public hearings, which is a much lower requirement than current state law.
Blame for the absence of new transportation funding this year, especially the lack of new funding for Highway 14, has been disputed between the Transportation Finance chairs and Dayton. The chairs claim it is wholely due Dayton's unwillingness to try passing the gas tax, which they said would receive enough public support. Dayton argued the opposite, claiming there is no public support for the gas tax hike and blaming the chairs for failing to come up with a new funding source that could pass.
Dayton has also stated he would prefer to solve the state's transportation funding problems with a six-month statewide tour following the end of this year's legislative session. He said the tour would involve determining a combination package of alternative transportation fundings sources that do have strong public support. He said he envisions an effort similar to the passage of the Legacy Act sales tax.
While Hornstein's two funding proposals this year can provide funds towards Highway 14's four-lane expansion, they are nowhere near generating sufficient funds needed to progress the project like a gas tax proposal would have done. Coupled with the lack of a Highway 14 project in this year's bonding bill, it is unclear if any progress will be made on Highway 14 this year. The situation is a dramatic turnaround from the numerous high profile bills being pushed to advance Highway 14 this year, including prominent advocacy by Dayton and Rep. Hornstein.
The Highway 14 Partnership has come out strongly against a status quo bill this year. A Partnership spokeswoman testified at both omnibus bill hearings that a status quo bill would keep putting people at risk due to Highway 14's serious safety issues. She pointed to MnDOT statistics that show Highway 14 has 1.5 times the state fatal crash rate and the section from New Ulm to North Mankato has three times the state fatal crash rate for similar highways.
New Ulm Mayor Bob Beussman, who been extremely active with representing the Partnership at several legislative hearing and events, said he is incredibly disappointed with the potential lack of Highway 14 progress this year. He said he strongly disputes the idea there is no public support for a gas tax, and he said he is very worried this is another situation where Highway 14 will be ignored.
"I just don't see how they will be able to keep funding our transportation if they stay this way, much less ever fund highway expansions [like Highway 14]," said Beussman. "It's such a disappointing turnaround. I really felt like we had the momentum, the support this year to finally get [Highway 14] done."
The concern among several Highway 14 advocates is not unreasonable, given the project infamous history of being repeatedly passed over for political considerations that resulted in the project being still unfinished despite nearly 50-years of advocating for it.
However, the situation for Highway 14 support or statewide funding is not yet over. Hornstein has stated he is still dedicated to funding Highway 14 and statewide transportation funding. Dayton said he is also dedicated to fixing statewide transportation funding, though he said he is only interested in comprehensive, long-term solutions.
The next hearing on the House version of the omnibus bill will be held Monday at the Capitol. The hearing will involve any potential amendments to the bill.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.