MARSHALL - "Black Hole." "Donut." "Empty Triangle."
Call it what you want, Marshall is in the middle of no-man's land when it comes to major highways - either of the interstate or four-lane variety. And transportation officials know that for Marshall to be able to compete with other cities and attract business, something needs to change.
Adding lanes to Minnesota Highway 23 has for years been on the long-range wish list of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee. But first, short-term fixes, officials agree, need to be taken care of if Marshall wants to keep pace with other cities.
"We compete, with Brookings (S.D.), for instance, and other places that have interstate freeway access, and there's this big gap, not only between interstates, but four-lane highways, and we're in the middle of this empty triangle," said David Sturrock, the transportation committee chairman. "There's this big empty swath of space. One could say, 'Well, gee you're only 40 miles from an interstatetwo problems: One, it's absolutely terrible roads that connect from here to there; two, that interstate is in another state - whole different tax structure, regulatory structure. We have to compete with these things to attract employers or give our current employers reason to expand here."
The highways that make up southwest Minnesota's infrastructure are paved with rough roads with small windows of passing areas, narrow or non-existent shoulders and deep ditches. Lyon County Commissioner Charlie Sanow calls some of them dangerous.
"It's harder to sell coming to Marshall, it's harder to sell coming to Tracy, or coming to Balaton, or coming to Cottonwood and set up your business," Sanow said. "We need to be able to get transportation so people will do that. You're not gonna ask a trucker to consistently go up and down Highway 19 to the interstate, or 68, because both of those roads are junk. Both of them in the wintertime are very dangerous."
That transportation access - the rural infrastructure that consists of rough roads and old bridges - officials say, gets more and more important with each passing year, building on the urgency for local highway expansion.
"We have so many older bridges, really older, wooden structures," Lyon County Engineer Suhail Kanwar said. "They are deteriorating at a higher rate than other bridges. You don't get 90 years out of them. The funding need is huge. Recently, the government changed the funding, so now we are getting even less from local government. Not a very pretty picture."
Margaret Donahoe, director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said most of the $1.1 billion that makes up MnDOT's road construction plan for 2013 consists of road preservation and overlays - keeping up the system currently in place. She said funding for MnDOT has "pretty much fallen off the cliff," a situation similar to that in 2008 when the Legislature passed a major transportation bill.
"But that's not going to happen again unless the Legislature acts to pass some additional funding for transportation," she said. "We're hopeful this year will be an opportunity for highways and transit to get some additional funding."
Donahoe said there's nothing in any funding proposals from the state that will address rural highway expansion in the next 20 years and that nearly 30 road projects totaling more than $1.2 billion have been introduced at the Capitol in the last couple of weeks that won't be addressed if no additional funding is approved.
"Unless there's some additional funding, those projects aren't going anywhere," she said.
TAXES THE ANSWER?
What's the remedy to clear up the transportation picture?
Officials agree a larger stream of revenue and new funding mechanisms dedicated to transportation is a must - for both urban and rural areas.
"The revenue formula and the distribution formula both need to be looked at basically," Kanwar said.
Lyon County Commissioner Charlie Sanow knows no one likes the idea of additional taxes, but alternatives are few. He said he's not opposed to paying more in taxes on gas as long as it benefits southwest Minnesota. But "if I'm just gonna pay it in and build another six-lane highway in Minneapolis, I'm not for it then.
"Realistically, if you're talking about a larger pool of money, you gotta get down to the very dirty word: taxes," said Sanow. "The gas tax is gonna have to go up, or the income tax is gonna have to go up, or license fees something is gonna have to go up to pay for this."
Sanow said, of those, the gas tax is the most fair because it's a user fee and would keep the state from taking money out of the General Fund.
"Transportation is one area that people are willing to pay for," said Kanwar.
The federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents. In Minnesota, motorists pay an additional 28.6 cents per gallon in taxes (the 19th highest rate in the nation) and that will likely go up in the future. Gov. Mark Dayton's Transportation Finance Advisory Committee has recommended increasing the state fuel tax by 40 cents during the next 20 years. However, Dayton is reluctant to support a gas tax increase this session. A bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, would bump the gas tax by 5 cents initially and by an additional 1.5 cents in each of the next three years.
Then there is a proposed license tab fee hike, which is part of the gas tax bill.
The proposal calls for those fees to increase by at least $10 per vehicle. Republicans in the House have reportedly expressed opposition to a bump in license tab fees.
But even if taxes, or fees, were raised, the question becomes, how do rural areas compete for that added revenue? Assuming urban issues soak up much of the spotlight in St. Paul, rural transportation advocates know they must make their voices heard, and do it as often as they can.
"MnDOT doesn't set out to ignore greater Minnesota; it may happen as a result of the fact that you've got large, very visible transportation needs in the metro that are naturally going to get the Legislature's attention," Sturrock said. "You make you case as loud as you can. Any day, if you're the transportation commissioner, you can have your pick of a dozen communities coming in and telling you what their problem is; we have to make sure we're in that queue and we're in that queue more than once."
Minnesota is not alone when it comes to dealing with declining transportation revenue and looking to taxes to lean on. The Maryland Senate on Friday voted to increase that state's gas tax by 1 percent - the first such increase in 20 years. The price of gas there will rise to about 4 cents more per gallon in July.
Donahoe said taxpayers need to realize that user fees, by constitutional definition, must be spent on transportation needs, whether it's the motor vehicle sales tax that funds highways and transit, or the gas tax and the tab fees that fund the roads.
"There's a direct connection between what they pay and the roads they're driving on," she said. "Most people don't make that connection. These dollars have to be spent on transportation. This is your tax dollars at work. So if there's an increase in taxes, people can be confident it will be spent on transportation."
Community Transit in Marshall finds itself in a bind, too, said its Transportation Director Cathleen Amick. With growth in Marshall, comes an increase of issues and concerns surrounding moving people in and around the city and the five counties it serves. Amick said Community Transit, which serves five counties, has always been underfunded; the need, she says, is "much greater" than the funding.
"As we continue to expand to keep up with development and as Marshall continues to spread, it takes us longer to get from one end of town to the other," Amick said. "We need to use more hours and more resources in order to keep up with the commuters."
The transit fleet consists of 20 buses, including 12 in Marshall. There are three Lyon County buses that provided some 2,600 rides in the last year throughout the county. Amick said the buses put nearly 1 million miles on in one year.
"That's a lot of road miles for our buses and our volunteer (drivers)," Amick said.
And if the roads are in poor shape, that means buses could need extra attention beyond routine maintenance. That means more time in the shop, which means more strain on the budget. Amick said the average life of a transit vehicle is typically five years, although Community Transit manages to stretch that out to seven to 10 years. Fuel and maintenance are the largest expense, Amick said, as the buses get anywhere from 3 to 5 miles per gallon.
"And that's a lot of in-town driving - stopping, starting," she said.
"If (gas) is four dollars a gallon, you take a bus out in Marshall and collect the two dollars for a ride, it costs you more to pick them up and drop them off. We do have local funding - the county gives money when they buy buses, the city gives money to try to help that situation out."
A state increase in user taxes is OK Sanow and Amick said, as long as it's dedicated and rural Minnesota gets its fair share.
"We get shorted on buses so they can put another half mile of track of light rail in the Twin Cities, what benefit is that for us?" Sanow said.
The combination of an increase in commuters to and from Marshall for work and those needing to be transported to a regional hospital for medical reasons, is a signal of the growning need for public transit, Sanow said.
Sanow, who sits on the transit board, says transit has partners that, for example, want to set up a route from Canby to Marshall on Minnesota Highway 68, a stretch of highway that has plenty of issues, although last year, MnDOT completed a resurfacing project between Marshall and Porter that included a new surface, and new striping and rumble strips. It had been about 20 years since the last major resurfacing project on the highway, MnDOT officials estimate.
"There are a lot of people coming in for work, and you can't help them with it because you can't get the buses, you can't get the funding," Sanow said. "Roads aren't being kept up to the level they should, but to keep them up you need money to do it. It's not MnDOT's fault because this isn't perfect. What do we want to drive on? If you want to drive on something nice to get from here to there, you have to be willing to pay for it. It's as simple as that."