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Fixing Minnesota roads can cost millions per mile

Fixing roads is expensive.

 Minnesota legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton generally agree that roads need upgrading, but they differ wildly on how to go about funding the pricey work.

Estimates about how much money is needed to bring the road system up to acceptable standards are at the root of the debate during this year’s legislative session. Democrat Dayton says studies show the needs are in the billions of dollars over a decade, while the Republican House transportation chairman wants more time to examine the situation, perhaps into next year.

All sides agree that fixing a road requires a bunch of money: anywhere from $167,000 to $3.7 million or more per lane-mile.

If the road’s substructure is in good condition, then rough pavement can be fixed by just applying a new surface. A typical asphalt resurface costs about $167,000 per lane-mile – double that for a two-lane road. Concrete is sturdier, but more expensive: a new concrete surface costs about $488,000 per lane-mile, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

If a road deteriorates to the point where its substructure also needs replacement, fixing it becomes a lot more expensive. A full reconstruction costs about $1 million per lane-mile for a rural road, and $2.2 million per lane-mile in town.

Because of the denser population in the Twin Cities, metro-area projects can be significantly more expensive, more than $3.7 million for a lane-mile or $7.5 million per mile for a two-lane city street.

Other factors can increase these average costs by making road work more difficult, such as steep hills, sharp turns and unstable terrain.

Inflation has reduced the purchasing power of the dollar, meaning most commodities cost more today than they did 10 or 20 years ago. But the cost of road construction has increased even faster than the rate of inflation, because of changes in the price of equipment, labor and materials such as oil, concrete and gravel.

“Since 2008, the cost of construction and the materials we use to build roads has gone up by over 70 percent,” Washington County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said. “What used to cost $1 million in 2008 is almost $2 million now.”

Three taxes provide most of the money Minnesota uses for roads. In 2013, the 28.6-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase brought in $860 million, while the vehicle-registration tax collected $622 million and the state share of the motor vehicle sales tax raised $359 million.

For every dollar raised in those new transportation taxes, 59 cents goes to the state, 27.5 cents to counties, 8.5 cents to cities and about 2.4 cents to townships.

In addition, the federal government every year provides money for state and local roads. In 2013, that was $550 million more for state highways and $170 million for local roads.

How much state aid a county or city gets varies from government to government. A complex formula in state law assigns state aid to cities and counties based on factors including need, population, road-network size and how much tax revenue a county contributed to the system.

The state traditionally distributes its funds based primarily on which roads and bridges need repair, although MnDOT will let some less-traveled highways “go to a lower quality before we fix them,” the department’s Scott Peterson said. Two years ago, lawmakers passed a plan called Corridors of Commerce, which directed more than $300 million to pay for road work aimed at economic development, relieving congestion and other factors besides degrading road and bridge quality.

Republicans and DFLers, along with local governments, agree that Minnesota isn’t spending enough to maintain its current system.

“We’ve got a lot of maintenance to do,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat who leads the Senate transportation committee. “There’s a lot of backlog, and it’ll only grow over time, of fixing what we’ve got.”

A study ordered by Dayton recently found the state needed to spend about $250 million more per year just to keep up with maintenance on its state-run highway system. County, township and city roads require hundreds of millions more.

Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing, the House transportation chairman, said Republicans agree on the need for more maintenance spending, even though they’re not eager to raise taxes.

“We may have failed in that effort over the last several years,” Kelly said. “If we don’t do that, it just gets more expensive in the future.”

The governor’s study also recommended spending more than double that to create a “world-class” system. That’s what Dayton and DFL lawmakers are aiming for with their comprehensive proposal – and where Republicans balk.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service

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