There are many reasons to oppose Tim Walz’s proposed gas tax increase. When a DFL governor last tried to increase the gas tax in 2015, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns wrote two excellent pieces detailing all the ways that The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s road building policies are hurting Minnesota’s cities and towns, fueling suburbanization and bad development. I’m going to focus on two reasons to oppose new gas taxes. The first reason is fiscal and overlaps with Marohn a bit. The second and most important reason is environmental.
Gas tax increases are sold to Minnesotans and, more broadly, to Americans on the idea that “our infrastructure is falling apart so we need more money to maintain it.” But, when you look more carefully, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is perpetually expanding our state’s road and bridge network. Instead of maintaining its existing system, a huge percentage of their budget is going to adding new bridges, new highways, and new highway lanes. After the I-35W Bridge collapsed in 2007, a Minneapolis Star Tribune 10-year review of MnDOT spending showed that “money for road and bridge construction went up every single year, no matter the state’s economic straits.”
“In 1997 the state spent $368 million on road and bridge construction. By 2007, it had soared to $760 million. Compare that with operation and maintenance of said roads and bridges, which stood at $213 million in 1997 and, by 2007, with a few dips and peaks, hit $218 million.” (August 12, 2007 Minneapolis Star Tribune A.19)
This was confirmed by a Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s report in 2008 which found that, despite MnDOT’s ‘Preservation First’ policy, “more than half of the spending since 2002 had been directed towards system expansion, not maintenance.”
Since I moved here in 2001, MnDOT added additional lanes to I-35E, I-35W, I-94, parts of Highways 62 and 52, and several other roadways. Many of these were huge projects, like the quarter billion dollar Cayuga project to widen I-35E. In addition, MnDOT added an entire second span to the Lafayette bridge and a brand new $700 million Stillwater Bridge for a road that carries far fewer cars than Snelling Avenue.
If you look carefully at their 2019 road construction project list, you see that many of the projects, particularly the most expensive ones involve adding new highway lanes, ramps and interchanges. There’s 6 miles of new lanes and interchange ramps on I-94 between Highway 241 and County Road 19 at a cost of $47.8 million. There’s $2.9 million to add a third lane and a 2-lane exit ramp on Highway 10 between I-35W and County road 96. There’s $59.5million to add 14 miles of new lanes on I-94 between Highways 25 and 24, or $95 million to add MnPass lanes at I-35W and Highway 10. There’s also $35.9 million to add MnPass lanes on I-35W between 43rd and 11th Avenues and on I-94 from 1st to Park Avenues. Many of these projects involve bridge replacements. Sometimes these are just “routine” maintenance but often, with widening projects, it’s because the existing bridges won’t hold the additional lanes, or bridges that cross the soon-to-be-widened road have abutments that are too close to the highway. So they need to be rebuilt as longer spans to cross the now wider highway below. This happened with some bridges as part of the I-35E Cayuga project. Just adding up the cost of the aforementioned projects, you get $241 million out of a total 2019 road construction budget of $1.125 billion …or close to 25% of the budget.
But there’s MORE! Many of the other, smaller projects on the list add or extend turn lanes, bypass lanes or newer, wider shoulders or parking lots. A $6.9 million project on Highway 210 or a $12.3 million project on Highway 10 would be examples of this. If you drill down a little further and actually look at some of the other 2019 projects on their individual project websites, you see that these involve adding new lanes, new ramps or new concrete and asphalt. I searched the project “Replace bridge on I-35W over Minnesota River from Black Dog Road in Burnsville to 106th Street in Bloomington” and found that it involves adding a northbound auxiliary truck lane for the entire stretch of the project. Adding lanes to bridges is super expensive, which helps explain this project’s 113.9 million dollar price tag on the construction list (though the project’s webpage says it will cost $127 million).
So what percentage of the agency’s budget is going to new construction as opposed to maintenance? Historically, according to the Star Tribune and Legislative Auditor, it’s been over half. I don’t have time to do an exhaustive analysis of each project on their current 2019 list, but it’s safe to say that at least a quarter of the spending is on new lanes and it may be much higher. This same process is also occurring with State-Aid money, where counties are frequently adding asphalt when they rebuild roads, intersections and sometimes even city streets. See my earlier piece on the Randolph and Lexington Avenue intersection rebuild.
If we get a gas tax increase, MnDOT has already published wish-lists or proposals for new expansion projects. These include their “Rethinking I-94” report, which proposes to add new MnPass lanes on I-94 through Saint Paul, a project that would require the replacement of many bridges and ramps that are currently too close to the existing highway to allow for expansion. This project would certainly cost several hundred million dollars.
The point of all this is that the state has more than enough money to maintain its roadway system. The problem is too much of that money is being diverted to new construction and expansion projects. In addition to diverting money away from system maintenance, all these expansion projects actually increase road maintenance budgets. Two additional MnPass lanes on I-94 through Saint Paul would add over 14 additional lane miles to the state’s road system. That’s 14 additional miles of concrete and asphalt that’ll have to be plowed, salted, have potholes fixed, and eventually be resurfaced or completely reconstructed. Every year we add dozens of new lane miles of asphalt and new bridges and other infrastructure to the system, all of which greatly increases maintenance needs and budgets. We can never adequately maintain a perpetually expanding system. At some point we either have to stop expanding it or, eventually, go bankrupt. The lesson of history is that “Preservation First” policies and current federal or state funding restrictions don’t work. MnDOT and the Highway Industrial Complex are constantly expanding monsters. The only way to keep them from gobbling up more land and more money is to squeeze or cut off their funding.
The bigger, much more important reason to oppose a gas tax increase is environmental. Climate Change is a screamingly urgent problem that we must confront if we wish to survive. Transportation is now one of the leading sources of carbon emissions in the US and the world. In the USA, “transportation” means “cars”, the most energy intensive of all transportation modes. As I’ve just detailed, year after year, MnDOT keeps widening roads and adding new bridges, interchanges, ramps, shoulders, parking lots and lane miles to the state highway system. As a state and a nation, we simply cannot address carbon emissions and climate change if we are perpetually expanding our highway system.
Even if you believe that, in twenty years, we’ll all be riding in magic driverless cars powered by limitless green energy, as much as 46% of the greenhouse gas and pollution that a car produces in its lifetime occurs during its manufacture and disposal. The aluminum and steel and other metals in a car have to be mined and forged. The plastics in its interior, body, tires and other components require petroleum. Electric car batteries require rare-earth metals like Lithium and are more complex to recycle. So emission reductions of these vehicles are not as great as many people think.
Then the roads, bridges and highways themselves produce carbon. The concrete industry alone accounts for over 5% of all carbon emissions. Asphalt and concrete also absorb solar heat producing “Heat Islands” that contribute to warming. Increasing amounts of pavement exacerbate floods in places like Houston and even Minnesota, as glaciers melt and (in some places) snow and rainfall increase. Add the carbon emissions from asphalt and steel and the energy required to transport, spread, build with, and maintain them …and you realize that tail pipe emissions are just the tip of the melting global warming iceberg.
If we want to survive as a planet and a species, we can’t keep paving the planet. I can’t take Tim Walz or Democrats seriously when they say they want to address climate change, yet they also want to increase a gas tax which, inevitably, will go to expanding roadways. If the gas tax could be flexibly spent on public transit, bike and pedestrian improvements, or brownfield remediation (like in Europe), I might consider it. It would then become a “sin tax” (like the tax on cigarettes or opiate medications), whose proceeds could go to offset the negative effects of driving. But, in Minnesota, the gas tax is constitutionally dedicated to highways. There’s a tiny bit of “revenue leakage” that goes to bicycle and pedestrian projects via State-Aid money but the vast majority is used for automobile pavement and infrastructure. Until that changes or controls are put on MnDOT to prevent it from expanding, I can’t in good conscience support a gas tax increase. What Minnesota and America really need is a paving moratorium. I’m not alone in this. In addition to Marohn’s call for “No New Roads”, Smart Growth America and others have consistently pushed to have climate change considered as part of infrastructure projects with an eye towards slowing or stopping road building.
So, if you believe climate change is real and something that we should address as a state and a nation, I urge you to email or call your legislators and tell them to oppose any proposed gas tax increase. If it passes, we’ll just get more asphalt, more runoff, more damage to our cities and towns, and more global warming.