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Audit: MnDOT needs to be more open about how it chooses to fund highway work

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation is not transparent, consistent, or objective enough with how it decides which state highway projects to fund, auditors said in a report released Monday.

The government agency is expected to spend $18 billion over the next 20 years on various state highway projects – but the agency is being criticized for how it chooses what projects to do, and when to do them.

Those criticism were highlighted in the Office of the Legislative Auditor's report, which was presented to the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee on Monday.

Here's a look at what the auditor's report found:

Cutting corners

Prioritizing projects based on convenience over need was a theme throughout the report, auditors found, which meant some important projects didn't get done.

For example, in 2015 MnDOT constructed MnPASS lanes on Interstate 35E – and not in another location – because it could conveniently do so at the same time as a major bridge replacement project.

Similarly, MnDOT has rarely allocated money to improve bicycle and pedestrian accessibility where it was most needed, but instead scheduled those types of projects where pavement and bridge preservation projects were already planned to be more cost-efficient, the report notes.

The agency was also more likely to select projects that could be constructed in a short timeline over projects that were better, but more technically complex, auditors found.

MnDOT's decisions to choose projects based on time instead of necessity created extra expenses and made it harder to gather public input, the report says.

Trunk highway system

The 12,000-mile network of interstates and state highways that connects communities throughout Minnesota is referred to as the trunk highway system.

In 2013, the Legislature created the Corridors of Commerce program to fund new trunk highway infrastructure. To use the funds, a law required MnDOT to base their project decisions on a seven-point criteria and review suggestions from the public and local stakeholders.

Instead, the report found MnDOT discarded public suggestions if they did not align with internal proposals, ignored some of the required criteria and added their own criteria.

The Met Council – which has been criticized for its lack of accountability – is the only other party that directly participated in trunk highway decisions.

No record of local spending

The majority of MnDOT's state road construction funds are allocated toward repairing or replacing existing highways. Little money is available for building new highways, adding lanes or constructing interchanges. In fact, there is no money allocated for those improvements outside the metropolitan area in the next 20 years.

Sometimes local governments will use their own funds to add lanes or an overpass because it is a high priority locally; however, MnDOT does not keep track of how much local money is spent on state highways. Auditors recommend that MnDOT keep better track of these projects.

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