Omnibus transportation proposal
Governor Walz proposed a comprehensive transportation funding package in his budget recommendations to ensure Minnesota has the resources to maintain the state’s infrastructure, expand capacity, and improve safety.
The need for additional transportation resources is clear. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently graded Minnesota’s roads a D+, bridges a C, and transit a C-. Over 50% of the state’s roads are older than 50 years old, and it is estimated that state highways and bridges alone face a $6 billion funding gap over the next ten years. But even if the legislature fails to raise additional taxes, it doesn’t mean Minnesotans aren’t already paying for the lack of investment. The average Minnesotan spends over $1,000 per year on additional gasoline, lost time, and car repairs due to congestion and poor road conditions. In Minnesota, 90% of road miles are owned and operated by towns, cities, and counties, which must be funded through local property taxes if the state doesn’t help offset these costs.
Governor Walz has recommended increases to the gas tax, tab fees, the motor vehicle sales tax, and metro-area sales taxes to raise $1.3 billion in revenue for the next biennium and $2.2 billion in the biennium after for transportation needs. A 20-cent gas tax increase would be phased in over two years and would be offset by an increase to the Working Family Tax Credit for 342,000 low- and mid-income Minnesotans. The gas tax is 100% constitutionally dedicated to fund state highways, county roads, city streets, and local bridges.
Tab fees would be increased by .25% and the base fee by $35, while the motor vehicle sales tax would increase to the current sales tax level of 6.875% from 6.5%. The governor recommends authorization for metro area counties to increase sales taxes by one-eighth of a cent to support regional bus service and transit through the Met Council. His proposal also authorizes $2 billion in trunk highway bonds over the next eight years to improve transportation infrastructure. These investments would go a long way toward building a world-class transportation system in Minnesota as over one million more people are estimated to be in the state by 2050.
Unfortunately, the Senate Republican transportation plan fails to provide any new resources to maintain the state’s roads, which will result in increased congestion, higher maintenance costs in the future, and less safety on roadways. The Republican plan fails to authorize new trunk highway bonds for infrastructure or appropriate money to the Met Council for regional bus service, light rail operation, or bus rapid transit. Due to higher inflationary pressure, the Republican transportation budget is effectively a cut to road maintenance and construction efforts across Minnesota.
The Republican proposal also includes detrimental policy provisions that would impede the ability of Minnesotans to move throughout the state. The bill zeroes out passenger rail funding, prohibits state funds for future light rail operations or capital costs, prohibits the use of trunk highway funds for bike lanes or paths, requires three passengers to qualify as a High-Occupancy Vehicle for MNPASS lanes, and hikes the electric vehicle registration surcharge by over 300%. These controversial policy items do nothing to reduce commute times or improve road safety for Minnesotans. (SF 1093)
Hands-Free cell use while driving
A bill has made it out of conference committee and has been passed by the House to address the dangers of distracted driving in the state. According to the Department of Public Safety, distracted driving was a contributing factor in one in five crashes between the years of 2013-2017. During this timeframe, there have been an average of 59 deaths and 223 serious injuries each year in Minnesota as a result of distracted driving.
State law already bans text messaging, emailing, and using a web browser with a handheld device while operating a motor vehicle as a part of traffic. With the change, all handheld device usage while driving would be prohibited including making phone calls, accessing apps, or streaming audio or video content. An exception allows for activating or deactivating a hands-free mode on a phone or handheld use during emergency situations.
One issue not addressed in this bill is the impact of expanding the list of prohibited behavior while driving experienced by communities of color. The House companion provided funding for a research grant to study what impact changes in traffic laws since 2003 (the year texting-while-driving was prohibited) have had on traffic stops, including whether changes resulted in a disproportionate impact in any geographic area or on any demographic group. This provision was removed in conference committee. (HF 50)
Increased penalties for distracted driving
A bill passed the Senate (56-9) to increase texting while driving penalties from a petty misdemeanor to a misdemeanor for a third or subsequent offense. The legislation increases the mandatory fine for a first offense from $50 to $150, from $275 to $300 for the second offense, and from $275 to $500 for a third or subsequent offense if the three offenses are within ten years of each other. It also provides that a third or subsequent offense within ten years would require a court appearance resulting in a 30-day driver’s license suspension. A driver would be eligible to apply for a limited license under court-imposed conditions.
The bill also instructs the commissioner of public safety to require driver education programs to include instruction on the laws and dangers of distracted driving and include a section on distracted driving in the driver’s manual.
Finally, the bill adds operating a cell phone in a negligent manner without using a hands-free mode to the definitions of criminal vehicular homicide, great bodily harm, bodily harm, and death of an unborn child, which would allow prosecutors to criminally charge drivers that were using their phones and caused a vehicular crash that harmed other drivers or passengers. However, using a phone in a non-hands-free setting alone would not be against the law. (SF 75)
A bill to allow an applicant for a driver’s license, permit, or identification card to request up to three emergency contacts be included on their card has made it to the Senate floor. The emergency contact data is classified as private data and would only be available to peace officers, EMTs, paramedics, and authorized ER staff to notify a driver’s contacts in the event of an emergency. The data would not be visible on the card; a database would be accessible to authorized personnel with appropriate login credentials through the magnetic strip.
A constituent advocated for the bill after his parents could not be notified for more than eight hours that he was in a car crash because he had suffered a brain injury. Testimony from emergency responders referenced the difficulty in locating necessary emergency contacts in the event of crashes, especially when there are young children involved. (SF 746)
MNLARS deficiency funding
A compromise to provide $11.2 million to ensure IT contractors continue to develop and improve the driver’s license and vehicle services software, known as MNLARS and FAST, was signed into law by Governor Walz. An additional $2 million will provide Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) with temporary employees to increase customer service capacity. The bill also requires Governor Walz’s new blue-ribbon council on IT to conduct a review of MNLARS and determine whether the project can be completed by the end of FY2021 as scheduled.
Additional investments to improve and test MNLARS will ensure Minnesotans are able to receive the essential services they expect from Driver and Vehicle Services. The next steps will include reimbursements to deputy registrars that process driver’s licenses, tabs, and titles across the state but have lost revenue since the rollout of MNLARS due to reduced business and productivity. The House version included $10 million in reimbursement grants for deputy registrars, but the Senate heard a separate bill this week with $4.6 million in additional funding.
FAST and MNLARS IT systems will require ongoing funding to continue improving the software applications, including additional DVS staff to reduce waiting times for future customers. Governor Walz’s proposed transportation package to raise the gas tax, tab fees, and the motor vehicle sales tax would help pay for these ongoing improvements. (SF 1092)
Deputy registrar reimbursement
A bill passed the Senate (60-6) to appropriate $13 million for grants to reimburse private deputy registrars for costs incurred due to lost business from the unsuccessful rollout of Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS).
Deputy registrars, both public and private, have testified on the loss of business and revenue from the unsuccessful rollout of the MNLARS vehicle services software in 2017 and subsequent glitches in the system. A total of $10 million was requested by private deputy registrars as the amount of lost revenue from 2017 to now. Deputy registrars are requesting additional processing fees to mitigate longer transaction times and training costs, which would apply to tabs, driver’s license applications, and title transfers. Funding for ongoing maintenance and operation of MNLARS is not included in the Senate Republican Omnibus Transportation Bill. (SF 621)
Light rail operators held accountable
A bill unanimously passed the Senate Floor to subject light rail (LRT) operators to the reckless and careless driving provisions currently in statute, meaning an LRT driver could be charged with a misdemeanor for reckless or careless operation of an LRT train. If an LRT drivers’ reckless or careless operation of a train causes great bodily harm or death, the driver would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor.
The bill is in response to an LRT incident that occurred July 2017 at the intersection of University Avenue and Eustis Street in Saint Paul involving a vehicle and an LRT train. The operator of the light rail train failed to come to a stop at the intersection and hit a vehicle that had the right-of-way crossing University Avenue, resulting in the driver of the vehicle dying from his injuries.
The bill will apply reckless and careless driving statutes to LRT operators in the event of future vehicular collisions. It will close a loophole in state law and help to improve safety on Minnesota’s roads and railways. It recently passed the House by a vote of 126-1 and awaits action by Governor Walz. (SF 1339)
Mileage-based user fee
The Senate Transportation Committee heard a bill that would establish a pilot program to identify and implement the steps necessary to develop a mileage-based user fee system (MBUF) to fund Minnesota’s transportation system. The pilot project must demonstrate and evaluate technical approaches to operating a MBUF system, analyze options and policy questions, and result in a near-term capacity to implement or phase-in an MBUF.
MBUF is an alternative to the gas tax, which is projected to raise less and less revenue as vehicles become more fuel efficient and fewer vehicles are dependent on fossil fuel. Since the gas tax revenue goes directly to road maintenance and construction, the state is facing a long-term deficiency in anticipated funding. MBUF would be a fair alternative because it would charge drivers based on their use of the road regardless of the type of fuel used. There are still many questions regarding the logistics of any new MBUF system in Minnesota, which the pilot project would begin to discuss. (SF 1122)