How to Spend $10 Billion in 10 Years, According to the Minnesota DOT

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The Midwest is famous for its pleasant manners, but the Minnesota legislature has been particularly gracious toward the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) recently, bestowing the agency with a $10 billion dowry for the next 10 years.

The move may be essential in an area where long, hard winters always come, and more often than not leave many miles of destroyed pavement in their wake. But some statehouse watchers were surprised at the sheer size of the financial package, given the difficulties the DOT’s sister division, the Department of Public Safety (DPS), has had with large economic projects lately.

Last winter marked the peak of a 9-year and $90-million problem for the DPS, which was using the funding to institute a new licensing and registration system for the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS).

But the IT rollout was badly botched, and instead resulted in hours-long waits for many residents, months of turmoil—and even a few layoffs—for DPS and DVS staff. It also added an extended amount of confusion concerning Minnesota’s progression toward adopting REAL IDs.

In the end, the issue was resolved with even more money, as state lawmakers poured an additional $10 million of emergency funding toward tidying up the project this March.

Still, if the past exists for nothing else, it’s to learn the lessons from previous mistakes. So what’s in store for the DOT’s newest state endowment?

Keep reading to find out.

Capital Ideas

As Minnesota collects and administers new money each year, the state updates the Capital Highway Investment Plan, and also takes a second look at all the projects it previously has given the financial OK to.

At 44%, the state has allocated the lion’s share of the investments reported in the latest edition for pavement condition, with bridge condition projects and roadside infrastructure calling for the next highest amounts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of major projects in the works are taking place or have been scheduled to start in and around the Twin Cities, with some key upgrades planned for interstate highways 35, 94, and 394.

Construction on a stretch of I-35 West alone comes with a price tag of roughly $90.2 million, while the other major projects range anywhere from $29 million to $8 million.

The state is also making a big push in expanding its infrastructure—especially for those not planning on manning a 4-wheeled vehicle.

Both bicycle and pedestrian networks are getting a boost in the latest budget, with the Minnesota DOT taking a particular interest in the condition of the state’s sidewalks.

Projects in the works include filling in sidewalk gaps across the state, and especially making all ramps and curbs accessible and in compliance with ADA standards, with a goal of reaching that benchmark by 2037.

Bike path improvement, while also on the long list of projects, has much less of a priority, with the state agency’s report noting that the DOT will invest in such issues at 75% the current rate of investment, which will “limit the ability to make new bicycle improvements and to maintain existing bicycle infrastructure as part of pavement and bridge projects.”

The Money Pit

bridge collapse with cars on it.
Several bridges in Minnesota need "significant renovation or replacement". Without the proper investment, the number needing fixing will only increase.

Still, it’s not the only area identified as one in which the agency would like to spend more money.

The Department notes that the number of facilities—including state-maintained roadside stops such as rest areas and weigh stations—in need of “significant renovation or replacement” will increase going forward.

Perhaps more concerning is the agency’s projection for bridge performance across the state. Those structures which have already been earmarked for work by the Minnesota DOT—but which haven’t yet received the needed tweaks—are projected to deteriorate significantly in the future.

While 1.5% of the bridges were rated “poor” in 2017, that rate will increase to 5.3% by 2028, the report notes. Further, bridges that have not been selected for work are anticipated to rise from a 1.7% “poor” rate to 9.2% in the same time period.

Still, the Department leaves its options open.

All told, the budget already includes about $1.3 billion in federal funding, plus an additional $2.7 billion provided by the state. The rest is made up from a number of programs, including Minnesota’s fuel tax, vehicle registration taxes and fees, and vehicle sales tax.

Yet, the report notes that additional money coming from a state Highway Flex Fund could be used to help with other projects which have begun to flag.

And, perhaps, they could always borrow some funding from the DPS.

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