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Legislative priorities for rural Minnesota: Infrastructure for moving goods, people and ideas

ST. PAUL—Minnesota has produced two comprehensive transportation funding agreements in the past 30 years.

Clearly, finding an approach that balances rural and metro priorities and addresses underlying unmet need—now estimated at over $900 million annually—isn't easy.

The tired old debate at the Capitol pits metro-area legislators who need funding for transit infrastructure against rural legislators who prefer rural roads and bridges. Discussion of one inevitably leads to consideration of the other, and common ground is hard to find.

Minnesota's legacy as a "state that works" was built upon a history of Democrats and Republicans, rural and metro, working through differences to find common ground. Although recent legislatures came up short in finding comprehensive new funding for Minnesota's transportation system, there are some proven tools that could leverage Minnesota's surplus in real and meaningful ways.

Corridors of Commerce, a program created in 2013, provides funding to expand interregional corridors, reduce bottlenecks and remove barriers to commerce. This program already has delivered for State Highway 11 and promises more for highways 1, 2, 11, 59 and 75 in northwestern Minnesota. But it needs permanent, ongoing funding to ensure that important expansion and safety projects don't go ignored.

In addition, cities large and small have expressed serious concerns about their ability to keep up with the maintenance and repair of their streets. The Legislature recognized these priorities in the past with one-time funding, but now is the time to search for long-term funding solutions.

For many communities throughout Greater Minnesota and families living outside city limits, reliable connectivity to the information superhighway is just as important as paved highways. But more than 20 percent of rural Minnesota homes and businesses lack access to broadband and thus, the global economy.

This challenge is analogous to the need for rural electrification throughout the American heartland a century ago. Imagine life today without electricity. Broadband and its many applications for economic competitiveness and quality of life are no different.

Broadband is essential for home-based business and teleworking, distance learning, telemedicine and precision agriculture, not to mention an ever-increasing number of applications in everyday life.

Minnesota's nation-leading Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program addresses a market failure—in this case, a situation where private investment capital is limited while consumer demand is strong, though not geographically concentrated.

In its first three years, the matching grant has funded 10 projects in northwestern Minnesota and has helped extend connectivity throughout the state to an estimated 25,000 homes and businesses and hundreds of community anchor institutions, including libraries, schools and hospitals.

It's a great example of how smart public investment partnered with private sector or service cooperative know-how can make a real difference.

Broadband is the great equalizer for economic competitiveness and quality of life in Greater Minnesota. The 2016 Legislature recognized this fact and doubled its prior investment in the grant fund.

Now, the 2017 Legislature has a chance to build momentum around Minnesota's proven approach to extending the reach of broadband.

Former State Sen. Schmit is policy and projects director for Growth & Justice, a St. Paul-based public-policy research and advocacy organization.

The Minnesota Rural Equity Project is a collaboration that aims to boost opportunity and growth throughout Greater Minnesota. It was launched earlier this year in St. Paul, and is a joint venture that includes the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the Greater Minnesota Partnership, the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition, and the policy research group Growth & Justice.

The project partners have identified a dozen legislative policy priorities, each with bipartisan and rural-metro support. The Herald invited the project leaders to describe some of those priorities, and this column is one of the results.