Would We Really Miss It?

The Rochester Post-Bulletin reports that a critical piece of Minnesota infrastructure would be open today, if not for the legislative deadlock that prevented a comprehensive transportation funding package last session. This bridge serves County Road O, a critical east–west link in Dodge County just south of Claremont.

“A bridge in Dodge County has become the latest victim in the Legislature’s failure to pass a transportation funding package.”

A month ago, this 75-year-old bridge was closed to all traffic due to deterioration. Dodge County’s highway department has a $350,000 replacement that’s “shovel ready.” But they just can’t get the state to pony up to keep this vital corridor open to traffic.

40 vehicles per day

Post-Bulletin Article

Click for Post-Bulletin Article

The bridge in question is on a 2.1 mile stretch of serene gravel known as County Road O, a segment which serves seven homesteads. According to 2013 MnDOT traffic volume data, this road sees 40 vehicles per day. Averaged across a 24 hour period, that’s less than one vehicle every half hour. If every vehicle paid a $1 toll to cross, it would take over 23 years to repay the cost of the proposed replacement bridge, and that’s not counting the cost of financing, maintaining, and servicing the bridge over that period.

The cost to the traveling public is minimal. Instead of a one minute mile across 655th St, a full detour south to the bridge at the next section line would add three miles and six minutes of driving time. In reality, since County O is a two mile gravel spur rather than a continuous stretch of regionally-significant roadway, people would simply “L” their way around for a real world impact far less than six added minutes.

Expecting state dollars

For Dodge County, the answer to this localized problem lies only in the availability of state funds. The Post-Bulletin notes that other local revenue streams could exist, but there’s no interest in paying for this local road with local revenues.

“Unlike Mower County, which is considering a half-cent sales tax to help fund roads, some officials say Dodge County wouldn’t be able to sustain such a tax. ‘Some counties do really well on half-cent sales tax, but it can be the same as raising their property tax,’ Kohlnhofer said. ‘There’s no appetite for it anytime in the future.'”

When limited local revenues are at stake, local policymakers must make decisions about what infrastructure to fund. While there’s plenty of infrastructure our state legitimately needs to maintain, money from St. Paul thrown at these non-problems in Ripley Township (Pop. 212) would completely destroy any virtuous and value-seeking feedback loop.

A rational response

"Are you suggesting that we blow up the moon?" "Would you miss it?"

“Are you suggesting that we blow up the moon?”
“Would you miss it?”

There’s nothing set in stone that says we must maintain every piece of infrastructure that has ever been built. Even mainstream policymakers are acknowledging that we may not even have the luxury of maintaining what we have. Paul Trombino, Iowa’s DOT chief, said in 2015:

“Look in the mirror. We’re not going to pay to rebuild [our] entire system. And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded. And so the reality is, the system is going to shrink. There’s nothing I have to do. Bridges close themselves. Roads deteriorate and go away. That’s what happens.”

And it’s not just infrastructure in a sparse township which may not be replaced. It’s infrastructure in our urban neighborhoods, too. Maybe it means significantly narrowing city streets when they are rebuilt, or privatizing suburban cul-de-sacs.

We definitely need more money for transportation in Minnesota, and that likely means new dedicated revenue streams. But we also need to have a frank discussion about the value our infrastructure provides and if we can reasonably replace every single piece of it. That time has come. It is time to be intentional about our infrastructure.


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10 Responses to Would We Really Miss It?

  1. Shawn July 29, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    “There’s nothing set in stone that says we must maintain every piece of infrastructure that has ever been built. ”

    Well, you kind of do. If you don’t and they collapse with someone on it, you have responsibility for their injury.

    My inner statistician also is disagreeing with this misrepresentation:
    “this road sees 40 vehicles per day. Averaged across a 24 hour period that’s less than one vehicle every half hour.” People really drive more between 6a and 6p, so it’s really more like a vehicle every 15 minutes.

    When we City-Folk consider issues like this, we can’t think one bridge at a time. And we can’t think that City-Based Density road requirements apply the same in rural areas. We have to think the affect this has on access and emergency response times. How many bridges are “unnecessary” and at what point do you cross a negative threshold for the access and response concerns.

    • Jeb Rach
      Jeb Rach July 29, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

      With a lot of these rural roads, it’s probably best to make those decisions at a county level, provided through a county-level tax. If they’re unwilling to raise the tax to maintain infrastructure that’s purely local (and I don’t think a gravel road is going to carry much traffic outside of what’s needed for local residents/businesses,) then the residents will have to realize that some infrastructure will go away. The state shouldn’t bail them out when they haven’t even exercised an option to fund it that many other counties have.

    • Rosa August 1, 2016 at 9:07 am #

      if it’s so needed, why won’t local people pay for it?

      I’ve lived in the city, I’ve lived in the country, I’ve lived in the suburbs (I’ve vowed to never live outside pizza delivery range again). There are benefits and downsides to each of those choices. Having to drive far, sometimes on poor road conditions, to get anywhere is a pretty well known and accounted for downside of living far away from other people.

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig August 2, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

      Something else to consider: it’s clear from the language and the numbers that Matt wrote this from a city perspective, with the assumption that the vehicles using the road are all passenger vehicles that could easily detour. The reality is likely that there are farm vehicles that A) go much slower than passenger vehicles so the “six minute detour” would be considerably longer, and B) some farm vehicles are not factored into traffic counts, so it’s quite possible that the actual vehicle usage is higher.

      So now you’re running into agricultural impacts in addition to the “six-minute-but-likely-longer-for-many detour”. Is the level of agriculture in the area worth spending six-digits for a new bridge? That’s a debate for a higher paygrade than I am, but it is something that needs to be considered, especially if these are family farmers (a species that’s dying faster than the middle class these days). Unfortunately, Matt’s article fails to consider this.

      • Jeb Rach
        Jeb Rach August 2, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

        I’m still not at all sold that the state should be bailing out the county, though. The state already has provided mechanisms for the county to raise additional funds, even beyond a property tax increase, and it’s not a county state aid highway either. If this is important to the residents of the county, the state has given the county ample means to raise the money necessary to repair the bridge. I don’t have any sympathy for a county that doesn’t want to raise its sales tax yet wants the state to fund a bridge on a county road that carries almost only local traffic and isn’t a CSAH.

      • Matthew Steele August 2, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

        It’s not the state’s responsibility to bail out the financially unsustainable supply chain practices of farmers in Dodge County, either. They can pay for it just as any other transportation infrastructure user can pay for it, whether in the city or in the country.

        • Adam Froehlig
          Adam Froehlig August 3, 2016 at 9:43 am #

          That’s the exact same logic that some legislators are using to cut transit operations funding. Be careful how far down that rabbit hole you want to go. Or do you think it’s possible for Metro Transit to survive without state funding?

          You’re also making an assumption about “supply chain practices of farmers”. Have you ever actually seen what it takes to operate a farm?

          • Matthew Steele August 3, 2016 at 9:50 am #

            Metro Transit could survive without state funding, if we had two major structural changes:

            1. Dismantle the paternalistic negatives of the “Minnesota Miracle” and allow local governments to levy taxes to match their own investment priorities (I’d love to see Mpls have a role in funding Mpls transit).

            2. Undo the major structural subsidies of the American Way Of Life ™ and the automobile-orientation manifestation of it. We are just starting to understand the true financial impacts of this subsidy, from global hegemony to protect the petrodollar and cheap oil imports, all the way down to the subsidies of sprawl by how we build stroads and pop-up interchanges and demand-inducing capacity improvements.

  2. Cameron Slick July 29, 2016 at 11:34 am #

    Of we are going to abandon an urban freeway, I voted 35e south of Kellogg all the way to Randolph.

    • Matt Brillhart July 29, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

      I look at 35E between the downtown commons and 494, taking in consideration the strong opposition to building it in the first place, and I think: “Why did we build this? Why isn’t US-52 into downtown St. Paul just signed as 35E instead?” 94, 35E (north of downtown), and present-day US-52 could all meet in full-stack interchange where 94 & US-52 come together, likely not taking up much more land than the freeways & railroads already do today. The area between the Cathedral, History Center, and Xcel Center would have a lot less highway slicing it up. Anyways…