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OUR OPINION: Minnesota's transportation needs stand out

Minnesota's 2014 legislative session starts in a few weeks, and the debates are likely to be divisive. Lawmakers from both parties seem determined to focus on partisan issues -- and that's a shame.

Because Minnesotans could be united around the issue of fixing the state's transportation infrastructure. This unification has happened before; just a few years ago, Minnesotans voted to raise their own taxes to start repairing the state's highway system.

And if Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers made the issue a priority, the shared resolve could happen again.

Transportation is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It's a core function of government.

And as Minnesotans know, it's a function that the state used to carry out a lot more effectively than it does now.

"In the next 20 years, the basic needs of Minnesota transportation will be $30 billion, and during that same time we will take in about $18 billion," The Free Press of Mankato, Minn., noted in a recent editorial.

"In its latest pavement condition report, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that state highway system will go from about 4 percent in 'poor' condition to about 10 percent by 2016 based on current projections -- more than a doubling of poor roads.

"By 2022, the report states, the percent of state highways in poor condition will go to 13 percent, a threefold increase in the level from 2003.

"The report also shows hundreds of miles of roads around the state that have a remaining service life of 0-3 years. Incredible."

No wonder MnDOT's most recent Transportation Survey had this to say: "Overall customer satisfaction with road maintenance fell in 2011 to its lowest rating ever measured."

Why have the road problems become so acute ? A Star Tribune editorial answered that key question.

"Much of Minnesota's infrastructure was built in a short span of years, in the 1960s and '70s, and it's all wearing out at the same time," the editorial reported.

"Patching and mending will no longer do; many roads and bridges need to be completely rebuilt, starting now.

"And there's a concurrent problem: The funding mechanism no longer works," because federal and state gas taxes no longer generate enough money to pay for the needed work.

For one thing, the taxes haven't kept up with inflation. For another, fuel-efficient engines have cut down on the revenues generated per mile.

The result is a subpar road-and-bridge system that creates all kinds of frustration for Minnesotans -- and a sense that strong leadership could catalyze that unhappiness into action.

"Dayton, legislative leaders and hesitant business executives should join the robust Move Minnesota coalition that unites business, civic and environmental leaders from 120 organizations to push for a real solution," the Star Tribune suggested.

That's great advice, and lawmakers could do their state a tremendous service by taking it.