Solutions hard to find on state's transportation system needs

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Facing a major need in the state transportation system the Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle is traveling the state discussing the need for increased funding.

Zelle held a forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, on Wednesday.

MnDOT estimates that the state's transportation system is in need of $50 billion dollars over the next 20 years. Twelve billion alone is needed for the state's highways and bridges. MnDot also estimates $28.5 billion for the county and municipal system, $4.2 billion in Twin Cities Metropolitan Area Transit, amongst other needs.

Finance and Commerce reports that Zelle said that both he and Gov. Mark Dayton want a transportation bill to deal with the multibillion-dollar funding gap. However, there has not been a determination made as to what funding recommendations, if any, will come before the 2014 legislature.

At the forum, Zelle admitted that he did not know if the governor will support a transportation funding package in 2014.

"I think there is a recognized need," said Zelle. "The question is: Is 2014 the time?"

Highway and transportation advocates made a strong push to raise the gasoline tax during the 2013 legislative session, but Dayton objected to the plan and the push for increased transportation funding died. Another push is expected this year.

Every cent of a gas tax increase is projected to increase funding to the state by about $20 million dollars a year.

The Pioneer Press reports that Zelle said one option could be tying the state's increase in the gas tax to inflation.

The paper reports that Zelle said after the panel discussion, "If the price of a gallon of gas goes from $3 to $4 no more money is going to the state," under the current fixed system.

Zelle also said though that the gas tax alone won't solve the problem. He suggested several other funding sources, such as license tab fees, motor vehicle sales taxes and expanding toll-charging through MnPass. Zelle also suggested that other states are even tapping general sales taxes to pay for transportation projects.

Part of the plan could focus the seven-county half-cent sales tax increase that Dayton proposed last year to pay for increased transit projects in the metro area for things like rapid bus transit and the Southwest Corridor light-rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

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