MARSHALL - The need for better roads and transportation options in southwest Minnesota is clear, a panel of legislative candidates said. It's also clear that state legislators must work together to make it happen. However, candidates, speaking at a transportation issues forum Wednesday night, had varied opinions as to what, if anything, could be done to pay for improvement.
The transportation forum was at the Regional Event Center at Southwest Minnesota State University. A total of seven candidates for the Minnesota House and Senate attended the meeting to share their views on transportation issues and answer questions from the public. Candidates and area residents also heard updates on regional transportation issues from organizations ranging from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to Western Community Action's local transit system.
Present at the forum were Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent; Al Kruse of Marshall; Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls; Ted Suss of Lucan; Gene Short of Currie; Bill Weber of Luverne; and Alan Oberloh of Worthington. Swedzinski and Kruse are running against each other in House District 16A, Dahms and Suss are running against each other in Senate District 16, Short is running in House District 22A, and Weber and Oberloh are running against each other in Senate District 22.
Photo by Deb Gau
District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, talks to during a transportation forum Wednesday night as Bill Weber, a candidate for Senate District 22, looks on.
Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said 2012 is "a really big year" for educating legislative candidates.
"Because of redistricting, about one-third of the Legislature will be turning over," she said.
The need to replace aging infrastructure like highways and bridges is increasing in Minnesota, Donahoe said, but state funding is not expected to keep up with the demand. In addition, current low interest rates and contracting bids make it a good time to invest in transportation maintenance.
Candidates acknowledged a need for strong transportation systems in the region, and several expressed support for increased transportation funding.
"We do have some issues with transportation systems in rural Minnesota," Dahms said. However, he said, addressing those issues would require legislators to look at different options than they have in the past.
Short said he favored a diverse approach to transportation issues. Improving railroads takes added stress from trucks off rural highways, he said. Meanwhile, Oberloh said Minnesota should take a serious look at introducing toll roads.
During the question-and-answer period, Tracy resident Jon Chalmers asked candidates what they would do to get past political gridlock and put constituents' needs first.
"The Legislature has become so intensely partisan," Suss said. "Until we build some bipartisan relationships . . . we will never solve these problems."
Dahms disagreed, saying there has been plenty of bipartisan legislation and compromise in past sessions. Swedzinski said many issues, including transportation, break down more on urban/rural lines than partisan lines.
The candidates' overall consensus seemed to be that creativity and teamwork were needed most on transportation issues. Donahoe added her feedback on that front. It's not likely the Legislature will be able to find one creative solution that will meet all funding needs, she said.
"It will take a package, that's what we've learned," Donahoe said.
Area resident Rebecca Day, part of a coalition supporting improvements on Minnesota Highway 68, asked Swedzinski what could be done to improve conditions on the highway. Highway 68 has dangerously narrow lanes, no shoulders and steep ditches, and many cross roads intersect it at angles that make visibility difficult, she said.
While he understood concerns about Highway 68, Swedzinski said the state needed to set its priorities in planning major highway projects. MnDOT does have plans in future years to update culverts along the highway, and there may be the possibility of widening the roadway then.