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MnDOT chief: $50B for transportation needed, funding options in play

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The state of Minnesota needs an eye-popping $50 billion to maintain and build new transportation infrastructure in the next two decades, Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle tells MPR.

How would the state raise that kind of cash? A number of funding mechanisms remain on the table, including tax increases, tolls and user fees, Zelle says.

"If you think of the population coming into the metro area, we just aren't equipped to handle the population and maintain the quality of life the state enjoys," Zelle, who took the helm at MnDOT in January, said on MPR's The Daily Circuit show.

Drivers who spend any time on Minnesota's weather-beaten roads know the streets take a beating, especially in winter and spring. Zelle says the state will need $21 billion in the next 20 years just to maintain infrastructure. But the state also needs new and expanded infrastructure, including rail line and airport projects, Zelle said.

Zelle is visiting different areas of the state on a campaign of sorts to drum up support for a long-term transportation plan. Here's an outline of the issues he faces, and the highlights aren't pretty:

– 50 percent of state highway pavements are more than 50 years old
– 35 percent of state bridges are more than 50 years old
– Minnesota is ranked 38th nationally for pavement condition

Minnesota has the fifth-largest highway system in the nation, with more than 140,000 miles of city, county, township and state roads – and transportation revenue is flat while its costs escalate, the Pioneer Press noted this summer.

The Metropolitan Council has a plan for improving transit in the seven-county metro area, but MnDOT had lacked a comprehensive statewide plan to "show how it all fits together," Zelle told the Pioneer Press.

New projections from the Metropolitan Council released last week showed that the Twin Cities metro area could grow by nearly 1 million people by 2040.

Here's a bit of good news for the state: An analysis by the Associated Press found more than 7,000 bridges around the country that could be at risk of failure because of the need for repairs. But fewer than three dozen of those are in Minnesota, where the collapse of the Interstate 35-W bridge six years ago generated a new commitment to bridge repair.

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