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.

Matt Steele

About Matt Steele

Matt's passion is fostering resiliency in local transportation and land use decisions. He's at @matthewsteele.