Column: Solution for transportation funding is overdue

I don’t scare easily, but when I hear forecasts and projections for the state’s roads and bridges, I can’t help but wonder.

It was less than 10 years ago when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed. Bridge collapses are rare, and I often associate them with earthquakes or other natural disasters. I don’t think I ever envisioned the possibility of a bridge collapsing in Minnesota on a warm summer evening, and yet it happened. It changed the way our state looks at bridges ever since.

The Bloomington Chamber of Commerce held a forum last month discussing the status of the interchange for interstates 35W and 494. I’ve written that story before. It’s old, it’s overwhelmed, it’s in need of replacement.

I have long realized that with every multi-million-dollar project that gets the green light in our state, other worthy projects remain in queue, waiting their turn. It would be nice if we could build freeways, highways, bridges and other projects to meet the anticipated demand in 20 years. But our projects often seem to barely catch up to today’s needs. And that makes sense for several reasons. You don’t build a church to meet the demand on Easter Sunday, after all.

Scott McBride, the metro district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, spoke about Minnesota’s needs and the financial obstacles our state needs to overcome to address them. I’ve heard plenty of discussion about the complex algorithm associated with funding federal, state, county and local roads. It’s mind boggling, to say the least.

Factor in the diverse, yet important demands of out-state Minnesota versus the daily needs of Twin Cities commuters that are going unmet, and the puzzle isn’t any easier to solve. A 50-year-old bridge on the Iron Range isn’t less worthy of maintenance because it’s not serving as many cars as a major bridge connecting Hennepin and Dakota counties.

Can we, collectively, decrease the daily demand on our roads and bridges? Sure. If all of us were able to eliminate one daily commute to work per week, that would keep the traffic count from growing at our Twin Cities interchanges. But for many of us, that’s not possible. I’d love to have a job where I could bicycle to work periodically, and work for an employer that provides a place to store my sweaty clothes and clean up a bit before sitting down at a desk. That’s not practical for my job, and I’m far from the only person in that group.

Public transit helps reduce the traffic volume, and is a great option for many. But again, it comes with limitations. Even if I could walk down the street to catch a bus from my Richfield neighborhood and take it to my Eden Prairie office, it wouldn’t be a viable option most days.

We can all make efforts to reduce the miles we drive every year, but for many of us, there’s not a lot of incentive. Even if we reduce our weekly commuting by one or two days per week, it’s not going to stop us from driving across the metro for a birthday party, to downtown Minneapolis for a sporting event or up north during summer and winter weekends for recreational getaways.

It often takes something more significant than feeling good to make a significant change in the way we do things. When gas prices hovered around $4 per gallon several years ago, there were plenty of reports about how it impacted the driving habits of Americans. Did it impact everybody? No, of course not, but it had a chilling effect on our driving habits collectively, at least for a short while.

Count me among the last group of people who wants to pay $4 per gallon for gas in the near future, but based upon the economic needs of our state and local roads, it’s hard to disagree that a comprehensive funding plan is needed to meet our future needs. I don’t know how much more I should spend per year at the gas pump or at the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my auto registration, but I’d have a hard time arguing against increases to provide for safe travel in the future.

We see plenty of bottlenecks and tired roads that need to be addressed during our daily commutes. They’re a part of life, and we can’t avoid them, but fewer would be better, I’d argue.

Our we destined to be a state, and a country, where our travels simply get worse with each passing decade? Perhaps that’s the inevitable outcome. But if you’re willing to do more to provide for a better future on our roads and highways, it’s time to do what our state representatives frequently advise us to do, contact them and express an opinion.

I’m not sure what kind of sacrifices we need to make collectively to pave the way for a better future, but that decision is arguably overdue.