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MnDOT examination raises concerns

Published (2/22/2008)
By Mike Cook
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A legislative auditor’s report offered mixed news for the Department of Transportation.

Released Feb. 19, “State Highways and Bridges” shows that trunk highway pavement conditions have worsened and are expected to do so further. However, it also indicates overall trunk highway bridge conditions have improved.

“There are a few bright spots, but the overall picture is not good,” said Legislative Auditor James Nobles. “Parts of the report are downright grim.”

The biggest problem is a decrease in state funding.

Historically, according to the report, the state has relied on transportation taxes to fund the trunk highway system, but tax receipts have not kept pace with inflation. These taxes now account for about half of trunk highway resources, compared to about two-thirds of those resources in 1998. Since 2003, the state has made substantial use of debt financing techniques to support the state trunk highway system.

“When adjusted for inflation, trunk highway funding in fiscal year 1998 totaled $1.4 billion. In the years since, inflation-adjusted funding reached a peak of $1.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2003, then decreased to $1.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2007, a 16 percent decline,” the report states.

The report was released two days before the House and Senate were expected to vote on a transportation bill that would raise an estimated $7.8 billion in the next decade through a gas tax increase, sales tax increase and other fee increases.

MnDOT has a preservation-first policy, and department officials estimate $672 million per year will be needed between 2012 and 2018 for preservation purposes. Yearly department revenues for that period are forecasted between $635 million and $700 million annually.

In recent years the department has strayed from that policy. According to the report, more than half of trunk highway construction spending since 2002 has gone toward system expansion. In Fiscal Year 2001, only 25 percent of allocated revenue was spent on expansion. The department predicts by 2011 there will be twice as many trunk highway miles in poor condition compared to 2007.

“The trends of flattening transportation revenues, quickly rising construction costs and an aging system make it clear that more of the state’s transportation resources must be invested in maintenance and preservation of our existing system,” said Transportation Commissioner/Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau.

The report also shows that MnDOT is good at completing high-priority bridge repairs, but is falling behind on routine maintenance.

Still, between 2002 and 2007, the percentage of bridge decks areas in good condition has increased by 4 percent on principal arterials to 55 percent, which is the department target, and to about 60 percent on non-principal roads, 10 percentage points above target.

However, the road quality index used by the department shows that about 66 percent of principal roads were in good condition last year, 6 percent lower than five years prior.

The full report is available at

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