ST. PAUL — House Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a transportation funding package that would spend $2 billion over the next two years without raising the gasoline tax.

“Minnesotans have spoken loudly and clearly that they don’t want to have their taxes raised. We will not be raising the gas tax or other taxes in this bill,” said House Transportation Finance Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska.

Instead of a gas tax hike, the GOP plan redirects $450 million in existing auto-related taxes from the state’s general fund to transportation. It also calls for borrowing $1 billion over four years to fund road upgrades. The proposal would also impose a $75 annual surcharge on electric vehicles.

Democrats blasted the plan saying it lacks the long-term, sustainable funding needed to fix Minnesota’s crumbling infrastructure.

“This is the opposite of what the public wants and what the public has said they want. During the campaign, it was continuous — we want predictable, regularized funding for roads,” said Rep. Duane Sauke, DFL-Rochester.

The Republican-led Senate announced its own transportation funding plan earlier in the week. Similar to the House GOP proposal, the Senate plan relies primarily on existing auto-related taxes and borrowing. It would generate an estimated $1.3 billion in the upcoming two-year budget cycle.

The legislative proposals set the stage for a potential showdown with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton over transportation. The governor has said he opposes using existing auto-related taxes for transportation that would otherwise go into the general fund and could be used for education and health care. His budget proposal calls for raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees to increase transportation funding

The House bill has funding for two local projects. Included in the measure is $2.3 million for the U.S. Customs facility expansion at Rochester International Airport. It also has $968,000 to help Red Wing with U.S. 61 reconstruction costs.

The House plan would significantly cut transit funding in the metro area, requiring metro-area counties to fund all of the operating and future capital costs for light rail. It prioritizes roads and bridges for funding, including an additional $24 million to fund construction-ready bridge projects across the state.

U.S. 14 funding

When it comes to funding to complete the expansion of U.S. 14 from Dodge Center to Owatonna, the two Republican proposals take different approaches. The House bill sets aside $300 million for the Corridors of Commerce program, which funds projects that would increase highway capacity and improve the movement of freight. U.S. 14 has received millions of dollars from the program since it began in 2013.

The Senate bill would set aside $200 million for Corridors of Commerce. It also earmarks $90 million in funding to expand the 12.5 mile stretch of U.S. 14 between Dodge Center to Owatonna from two-lanes to four-lanes. The governor has previously said he opposes earmarking funds for transportation.

 U.S. Highway 14 Partnership’s lobbyist Carolyn Jackson said neither of the Republican bills comes close to providing enough money to finish expanding U.S. 14 from Rochester to New Ulm.

“The bottom line is neither of these bills shows how to complete Highway 14,” Jackson said.

For instance, the cost to finish the expansion between Dodge Center to Owatonna is projected to cost between $152 million to $193 million. Even if the Senate proposal with $90 million set aside passes, it isn’t enough money to get the project done, Jackson said. She said lawmakers also need to set aside cash that could be used for land acquisition to get the project done.

Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, said that while the House GOP transportation proposal wouldn’t fully fund the U.S. 14 expansion upgrade, it makes money available that can help keep the project moving forward. He said he supports the idea of earmarking money for projects like U.S. 14 that have languished.

Quam added these earmarks are a “response to the continued lack of getting these high-profile jobs done. We have waited in some cases many decades for projects to get finished.”

 

This article was originally published in the Post-Bulletin on March 22, 2017.