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Commentary: MnDOT's choices left Greater Minnesota behind

For years, the Corridors of Commerce program has helped pay for critical road projects in the Metro and Greater Minnesota that help boost regional development and make our roads safer for Minnesotans to travel and for farmers and businesses to bring their goods to market.

Traditionally, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has maintained a 50/50 split between rural and metro projects. That practice came to a screeching halt this week when Gov. Dayton's MnDOT announced this year's Corridors of Commerce projects.

More than $400 million was allocated to just four projects, all located within a 50-mile radius of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Minnesotans were understandably outraged — it confirmed for many the worst assumptions many communities have that their projects are viewed as somehow less worthy and that MnDOT unfairly prioritizes the needs of the metro over those in rural areas.

In recent media reports and opinion pieces, MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle attempts to escape blame for this disastrous result, pointing the finger at guidelines set by the Legislature. I am troubled by these assertions, and want to set the record straight.

MnDOT is well-aware of the flexibility at their disposal that could have avoided this unfortunate outcome.

For instance, the agency's decision to use MnDOT Metro Transportation District boundaries had no basis in rule or statute for the purposes of the Corridors of Commerce program.

Many people would agree that Elk River and St. Michael are relatively close to the metro. However, the choice of boundaries placed these communities outside the metro, making them eligible for Greater Minnesota Corridors of Commerce funds.

MnDOT also made the arbitrary decision to include four full years of funding in this allocation. Had the agency opted to split the award into two or more allocations, the Legislature could have made adjustments to avoid this outcome for future allocations. Given that some of these funds will not be used until 2022, it's clear this would have been a much more prudent approach.

The reaction from legislators and the public to these metro-centric project selections make it obvious that MnDOT ignored the legislative intent and spirit of the Corridors of Commerce program. The law clearly states that funds should be utilized throughout Minnesota — something that is obviously not reflected in the four metro projects chosen this year.

Most legislators and stakeholders have a clear understanding that 50 percent of these funds be used to develop key Greater Minnesota corridors and ensure true geographic balance.

It's extremely disappointing that MnDOT decided to prioritize metro projects instead of balancing statewide demands. I speak often with Commissioner Zelle, and not once did he suggest that changes were needed to prevent an all-metro list of projects.

I share the outrage and frustration that many Minnesotans have been feeling when they saw the map with all four projects clustered together near the metro area. We have tremendous needs throughout Greater Minnesota, including critically important projects like Highway 14, Highway 23, and countless others.

MnDOT's excuses and finger-pointing are not acceptable. They had alternatives, they simply chose to ignore them. I am fully committed to ensuring that it is crystal clear for MnDOT that true geographic balance is needed. We simply cannot leave Greater Minnesota behind — just like the metro, we need safe roads, and functional corridors that will help our communities grow.

State Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) is the chairman of the Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee.

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