By Roz Kohls
No one was arguing with Meeker County Engineer Ron Mortensen last Monday that the highway department needs more money to keep county roads and bridges safe and intact.
Where the money will come from, whether a gas tax increase, property taxes or from paying for bonds with future income taxes, was questioned, however.
Several were in attendance to discuss what could be done, including Mortensen, State Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City), two representatives from the Metro Transitways Development Board, and Meeker County commissioners. The meeting was in the courthouse in Litchfield.
Mortensen said the cost of road construction has outstripped funding to the point where he can’t fix even one mile of Meeker County roads. The county’s five-year road project plan was delayed to a seven-year plan, and probably will be delayed again, into a 10-year plan, he said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and Carver County Commissioner Randy Maluchnik, representing the MTDB, advocated for a gas tax increase for roads only, and a 0.5-cent sales tax increase for the metro area only, as the solution to the problem.
McLaughlin said they also want to dispel the notion there is a rural/urban split. What happens in the Twin Cities affects the rural areas, and what happens in the rural areas affects the Twin Cities, Maluchnik agreed.
Minnesotans everywhere are paying “hidden taxes,” McLaughlin said. Whenever a trucker drives miles out of the way to avoid a road designed for only nine tons, it costs the business money. When cities and counties use dollars from property taxes to pay for roads, it costs property owners more, he said.
The cost of workers and truckers tied up in traffic congestion also is a hidden tax, Maluchnik said.
Road construction workers who don’t have jobs, and can’t purchase goods and services from area merchants and businesses, create a hidden tax also, County Commissioner Amy Wilde said.
County Commissioner Dave Gabrielson said a gas tax is the most fair tax. “The guys that drive a lot, pay a lot,” he said.
Urdahl said he rarely hears any of his constituents, other than government officials, say they want a gas tax increase, though. He told of an encounter he had with an elderly man recently at a local fast food restaurant, and how the man warned him not to raise the gas tax. Later in the conversation, the man complained about a county road that needed fixing. Urdahl asked the man where he thought the money should come from to fix that road.
When Urdahl was asked what Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation plan is, other than to bond for road and bridge improvements, Urdahl said Pawlenty hasn’t revealed it yet.
McLaughlin, who called himself a pragmatist, said he isn’t drawing a line on bonding, as long as there is a revenue source to pay off the bonds.
Wilde said, however, she didn’t like bonding, because it forces our children and grandchildren to pay off the debt with their income taxes.
Gabrielson estimated property taxes will go up at least 10 percent if the state doesn’t solve this dilemma.
Mortensen provided the group graphs and outlines to illustrate the scope of the funding problem. Almost 60 percent of county residents are employed outside of the county, either in Hutchinson, Willmar, the Twin Cities or St. Cloud, so it is imperative they can drive on intact roads, he said.
Also, most of the county roads are designed to be nine-ton roads, but they are used as if they are 10-ton roads. Truck traffic, including trucks carrying soybeans, milk, and ethanol, has doubled in the past seven years, Mortensen said.
That doesn’t count the damage from over-loaded trucks, either, he added.
The cost of road construction, especially bituminous costs, has soared since 2004, but the funding has stayed flat, he added.
Wilde said she recalled the cost of bituminous jumped 45 percent in two years.
The county highway department has been patching, instead of putting down overlay, to get by, Mortensen said. The county is fortunate to have skilled and efficient highway department employees who can make a bituminous patch temporarily take the place of overlay, he said.
The bituminous overlays planned for 2008 will be on county roads 18, 20, 8, 19 and 24.
McLaughlin asked, if the MTDB’s 2008 transportation package is approved this legislative session, possibly mid-March, will the county have time to get started on $300,000 in construction by the summer?
County Administrator Paul Virnig responded the earliest the county could start would be 2009.
Wilde said there is a short gravel strip of County Road 5 between County Roads 15 and 18 that could be paved for that amount.
Also, Virnig said he feared any transportation solution would get bogged down in party politics.
Urdahl also pointed out that the metro sales tax increase in the MTDB package would be imposed on metro residents, the same way the financing for the Twins stadium was, without putting it to a vote from the people.