Column: How will we pay for roads and bridges?


I have watched with interest the community discussion on how Duluth should fund its transportation needs into the future. I give credit to the City Council and to Mayor Don Ness for taking on this issue. Funding a well-maintained transportation network is one of those necessary functions that no one enjoys, but at the same time, it benefits everyone.
Duluth is like many other cities across our country — suffering from deferred maintenance, funding shortfalls, industry needs and public demand. Public managers nearly everywhere struggle with how to provide critical infrastructure, in order to maintain and attract businesses which provide those vital jobs.
As I watch my community struggle, I also consider the task before the Legislature when we return next January. In addition to all the municipal needs being discussed across our state, the state itself is in desperate need of new funding for transportation. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has told us Minnesota’s roads and bridges alone face a $12 billion deficit over the next 20 years. Between that, a growing need for mass transit throughout the metro and yet another growing need for transit amongst our regional centers, the Legislature will face an extreme challenge.
To do nothing is not an option. An effective transportation network that moves not only people, but commerce, is critical to our economy and gross domestic product. By doing nothing, we lose opportunities to retain jobs and attract new employers all across Minnesota.
The largest question will be, how to fund?
Gas tax increase? Wholesale fuel tax? User fee?
We have to consider all options. In reality, the end result will likely be a blend of revenues — some new, others redirected.
My conclusion is that the investment we will need to make is critical to the future of Minnesota. What we do during the next session will chart the course of transportation for the next two decades.
If we are to pass a comprehensive transportation package for Minnesota’s future, then we should do it with a broad coalition. In 2008, the last time we passed a comprehensive transportation package, we had bipartisan support and the backing of both labor and the business community. Thus far, Republicans have been unwilling to take seriously the need for us to reach a solution. The safety of our roads and highways shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Next year, I hope all parties can come to the table.
I believe it is time to look closely at almost $11 billion the state spends annually on income tax expenditures. Within that, I believe we can find the most fair and balanced funding mechanism to invest in the future of Minnesota.
No fuel tax alone can meet the demand. We must look beyond traditions. It is time to look closer at how we invest public dollars.

Erik Simonson (DFL) is the Minnesota state representative for District 7B.