Expanded Database Sheds Light on Transportation Funding Debate in Minnesota
When the subject of transportation funding comes up in the Minnesota Legislature, lawmakers often debate whether their part of the state is getting its fair share of the money. A comprehensive database developed by researchers at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs can help them come up with the answer.
Humphrey School researcher Adeel Lari and Associate Professor Zhirong (Jerry) Zhao began developing the transportation funding database shortly after the project was approved by the state Legislature in 2013. They’ve collected this data going back to the 1980s, and recently expanded it to include every source that pays for transportation projects in Minnesota: from various federal and state government programs to gasoline tax revenues, vehicle registration fees, local property taxes, and even nonprofit agencies that provide ride services for people with limited mobility.
“Nobody has put this data together in one place until now,” says Lari. And he should know. He worked at the Minnesota Department of Transportation for 30 years, and tried to accomplish this very same task when he worked at that agency. MnDOT usually does one-time reports, but doesn't have the resources to do ongoing studies like this one, Lari says.
One key to completing the database was to track down all the nonprofit organizations, local human services agencies, and other entities that help to pay for transit services in rural areas, for people with disabilities, and the like. While the dollar amounts are small, the information is important to include, Lari says.
The researchers contacted dozens of federal, state, local, and nonprofit agencies to get this information, and it took years.
“We were surprised by the amount of work it was to collect all this data,” says Lari. “We had to beg, borrow, and cajole agencies to give us the information we needed. And each agency only looked at one piece of the puzzle.”
Once the database was complete, Lari and Zhao analyzed the information to find out exactly how—and where—all that transportation money is being spent.
Their most significant finding is that a huge percentage of transportation infrastructure in Minnesota is funded by local governments—primarily through the property taxes they collect—rather than by the state and federal governments, the gasoline tax, and other funding, says Zhao.
A few other key points:
- The Twin Cities metro district paid slightly more into the transportation funding pot than it received between 2010 and 2015. It contributed about 49 percent of federal and state transportation revenues, and received about 47 percent of federal and state transportation expenditures.
- The Twin Cities metro area receives by far the greatest share of funding to pay for transit service. But Greater Minnesota receives a larger share of funds for roads and bridges.
- Greater Minnesota districts tend to receive more funding than they contribute, because they have lower populations and more miles of highway that need to be maintained.
With the completion of the database, Lari and Zhao hope legislators and policymakers will use it to make well-informed decisions about transportation services going forward. They emphasize that it's available for anyone to use, including members of the public, media outlets, and nonprofit organizations as well as government officials. The information is presented in an Excel format so it’s easily accessible, and will continue to be updated going forward.
“Transportation is an important element for the economic vitality of the state and the nation. We want to make sure decisions get made based on all the knowledge as possible, and our role is to provide that information,” Lari says.
The database is one part of a multiyear Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness (TPEC) research project that was created five years ago by the Legislature. TPEC is a program of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School and the Center for Transportation Studies.