St. Cloud Sen. John Pederson is authoring one of a couple legislative proposals that renew a familiar debate: Should Minnesota turn toward using more toll roads?
Viewed in the context of the entire state transportation system, the basic answer is no. That’s what gas taxes are for. And frankly, elected officials at the state and federal levels should have the courage to stand behind their decisions on whether to raise them.
Sadly, too many elected officials have long shown they are not willing to raise those taxes, yet still publicly talk about the need to meet constituent demand for more roads and faster travel times.
Don’t think so? Witness Minnesota’s roughly 20-year battle to raise its gas tax, culminating back in 2008. It was in the few years before that vote when legislators - citing limited public funds and high driver demand - crafted MnPASS for Interstate Highway 394 in the Twin Cities, the state’s only toll system and one that involves the state’s busiest roads.
Interestingly, another measure in the Legislature now seeks to expand MnPASS to create lanes on Interstate Highway 35E, another gridlocked artery. Supporters say it will be easier and cheaper to squeeze extra lanes on I-35E than do a major rebuild. And citing - what else? - not enough funding, they propose tolls.
Pederson’s proposal also involves tolls but for a markedly different project. He wants to move ahead with this area’s $242 million I-94-to-Highway-10 freeway proposal by having the state partner with a private company.
According to a Times news report, the bill could involve a private company building a toll road or bridge and transferring ownership to the state. The company would operate it for a set period. Or it could call for a company to build, operate and own a toll road or bridge until toll revenues reached a trigger point at which the state would assume ownership.
While there can be merit for toll roads in heavily congested areas, this idea seems fraught with risks for everyone. Is the company expected to pay the entire project up front? What will the tolls be for users? Will the existing bridge remain open for those who don’t want to pay? And who ultimately is liable for the $242 million bill?
Those are questions specific to just the project. The entire concept of toll roads raises debates about fairness. Don’t they give priority to the wealthy? What factors determine which projects might utilize them? And aren’t they just a monopoly on a public domain?
It’s not that we oppose building this bridge or expanding roads. It’s just that the fairest revenue stream to do so is the gas tax. Legislators just need the courage to adjust it as needed.
— St. Cloud Times