Q&A: MnDOT Commissioner talks roads, transit, federal money

The last few weeks have been momentous for Margaret Anderson Kelliher and the state department she oversees.

In early November, the Minnesota Department of Transportation officially wrapped up its 2021 construction season, which advanced or completed more than 260 projects, including the mammoth $239 million, four-year overhaul of Interstate 35W south of downtown Minneapolis.

More recently, the federal government announced the passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will deliver billions of dollars to roads, bridges, mass transit and more in Minnesota.

In the following interview, Anderson Kelliher talks about the passage of the federal bill, the newly completed construction season, the future of transportation funding and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does the $1.2 trillion federal transportation package mean for Minnesota?

A: It means that over the period of time the bill covers there will be $4.5 billion coming in specifically to Minnesota for roads, bridges, and highway safety, with a focus on climate and equity and those safety issues.

There’s an additional $300 million that is specific for bridges, and a portion of that is also set aside for local communities, non-state highways, so cities and counties, as well. And it also has $68 million dollars for electric vehicle charging as well as $818 million for public transportation.

Largely that public transportation money will likely go to the Metropolitan Council. However, MnDOT also oversees and works with partners in rural communities outside of the metro area on their transit issues.

And then there’s over $100 million for internet — the other way we move today, which is the virtual way. So that’s very exciting too.

Q: Can you get into some specifics about how the money might be spent and how projects will be selected? Does the federal government have a say in how certain funds can be allocated?

A: The bill has kind of two different ways to distribute funds. One is what I was talking about, which is directly coming to the state will be that $4.5 billion over a number of years in the bridge money, things like that.

There’s also a number of programs that states and communities — cities, counties, others — can apply for, that are more specific to maybe a type of infrastructure. So there’s going to be more bridge money that is available that the state will be interested in for particular bridges, there will be specific money around connecting communities.

Lots of people have heard that when the interstate highways came through in the late ’50s and early ’60s, many communities that were low-power and low-income, and often communities of color, were separated by the highway. In our own city, we know this. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, in the Twin Cities, we have many examples of this. And one of the more notable ones is the Rondo Neighborhood, between Minneapolis and St. Paul. And so there’s going to be some category money that we could apply for that will help connect communities. And that’s very exciting to have available in the bill.

Q: What about matching funds?

A: We don’t know 100% yet what will need to be matched and what won’t need to be matched. We have some early indication that some of the bridge money may be 100% federally funded as a real effort to try to take care of these critical safety issues on our system, as well as economic issues. Many of your listeners probably know when a bridge starts to fall into disrepair or there’s something that we have found wrong with the bridge, then we have to close that bridge or take it down to maybe two lanes instead of four lanes. And that causes significant time and delay. And so those monies, we think, or at least a portion of them are not going to have to be matched.

But generally speaking, federal money in transportation has to have a 20% match to it; we call that the state match. In some cases, it might be a local communities’ match. But that is an important concept here because that definitely means that we have some ideas about how these funds could help Minnesotans. We obviously will be talking to members of the Legislature as well as others about their ideas. But we will need an appropriation to match at least some of this funding by 20%.

Q: What are some of your priorities for the 2022 legislative session in addition to getting some of those matching funds?

A: We actually were looking at the issues around bridges even before this bill passed federally. We know that we have about 650 plus bridges that are in fair condition around the state. We have put together for the governor’s consideration, a significant capital investment or using bond program that would help repair a number of these bridges.

I think that with this federal money, we’re going to have to probably look at what dollar amount do we need there now. We have put together an $800 million program of bridge repairs, so taking that before the Legislature, really working on safety issues.

Safety can be everything from folks who are driving in their cars and trucks and making sure that the roadway itself is safe, intersections are better lighted; there’s a number of things that we can do on Highway 12 this year. We installed a median barrier so that we reduce those deadly head on crashes out on that section of road.

There’s a lot of things like that that can happen. But I would also say the other part of safety is for people who are walking, who are riding a bike, who are maybe using a non-motorized form of transportation or a very low motorized form of transportation. As we’ve seen the rise of other, you know, small-scale electrification type vehicles, we need to make sure that that those folks are safe as well. So safety is a major focus in this legislative session of things that we’ll be working on and bringing before the Legislature.

Our budget year was last year. We did have a very good budget session last year bipartisanly with the House and Senate and the governor. And so I anticipate that there’s going to be some opportunities to be able to hit this funding match for at least the next year or two in terms of what we need federally, and then also being able to work on these other important issues.

Q: Of course, you have people in the Legislature who want to focus on roads and others have an interest in mass transit. How do you walk that line and try to satisfy those competing interests?

A: We need both; we need both. We need good roads and good bridges, but we also need more transit in the state. If we want to be able to mitigate the issues around greenhouse gas production — transportation is the largest producer of greenhouse gases today, not only in Minnesota, but around the globe, so we need to work together to have these alternatives.

And the alternatives are everything from more electric vehicles, as well as being able to have cleaner fuels. So I am chairing with the commissioner of agriculture a group to work on cleaner fuels in Minnesota. Oregon actually did this and has had great success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions with just this one piece of that equation.

And then I say all the time, we need more transit; we need transit that’s clean, electrified and being able to get people where they want to go. And you know, it’s a time right now, we’re still coming out of this pandemic time, we’re still in it. We naturally see that transit, ridership is down, but I really believe when you think about 10 years from now, more people are going to be wanting to use transit than ever before.

Q: What are your thoughts about the future of the gas tax as we make the transition to electric vehicles?

A: The gas tax has been a real workhorse for transportation. It’s one of three major funding sources in Minnesota along with registration of your vehicle tabs, and then the sales tax on vehicles. Those three have really been the workhorses of our system.

We can see that somewhere probably about year seven, eight or nine out from today, the gas tax does start to decline in its production. It doesn’t totally fall off. But what I think what it means is that we really have to have this both Minnesota and national conversation about how are we going to pay for the infrastructure that we need and that’s required for us to be able to move about freely?

One of the things in the federal bill is actually some more money for an inter-state pilot on a distance-based user fee. So really something that’s more based on the miles you travel. It’s not a full funding mechanism, but it’s looking at how would that work? Could it work with current technologies?

That’s one option. There are other options out there about what it might look like. You know, it might be some additional way of looking at the electrification portion of this, right? If we’re moving towards electrification, is there a way to be able to account for that similar type of revenue that has some growth going forward?

I think that for the next year or so, it’s going to be harder to get people to focus on that, partly because of the infusion of the federal money into the system. And frankly, our state economically is doing pretty well, and has a pretty robust economy right now. So I think it’s going to be a little bit down the road that we’re having the conversation about, what’s the substitution for the gas tax.

Q: Looking back, what are your thoughts on the recently completed construction season? I think everybody was happy to see that $239 million I-35W@94 project completed.

A: Four years of patience by people having to change their routes, driving different ways. It has a state-of-the-art bus facility right at Lake Street. The Metropolitan Council is bringing online a number of bus rapid transit lines that will also use that corridor. It’s super exciting.

But we also had projects like Highway 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center, Highway 14 being a real workhorse of a road across southern Minnesota. And needed safety upgrades where the roadway is now divided. We see a lot more traffic going between Rochester and I-35W nowadays over to Mankato, so that’s a big one.

We have a number of projects that were completed out to the west or are in process. We have sort of phases of projects up on I-94 going out of the Twin Cities. I was just up at what was once called the Brockton Interchange and is now called the Dayton Parkway Interchange. That is a lovely stretch of road both from the standpoint of I-94, but also up above it with Dayton Parkway, and a much safer design, a new interchange. So I think people are really going to like that.

We have more work to do out on 94 for sure. The Highway 12 project that we were working on this year which is really a safety project; there’s been too many too many fatal crashes and life-changing injury crashes on Highway 12, so working to put in that center median out there that divides the highway — it doesn’t mean that there will never be a crash again, but the likelihood of a head-on crash is nearly taken away when you have one of those medians in place. So a number of important projects have been completed around the system.

Scroll to Top