BAXTER - As the state’s relative buying power from the fixed gas tax rate diminishes because of inflation, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officials are looking for a supportive funding mechanism for its transportation systems.

“We need a funding solution that is sustainable,” Eric Davis, chief of staff to MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle, told the Brainerd Noon Rotary Club at the Northland Arboretum Tuesday.

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Transportation officials, Davis said, have suggested that to address the transportation system’s needed improvements and strategic investments an additional $50 billion is needed. Of that $50 billion, $12 billion would be used on highways and bridges alone.

Davis, a last-minute replacement for Zelle, said 50 percent of the state’s highway pavements are more than 50 years old, all of them subject to the state’s demanding freeze/thaw cycle. He said Minnesota’s 12,000 miles of road make it the nation’s fifth largest transportation system, even though Minnesota is far from the fifth largest state.

“You have to have a pretty good-sized work force to keep those roads plowed,” Davis said.

The chief of staff said he and the commissioner have been involved in a deliberate outreach in which they have shared the state transportation system’s story throughout Minnesota.

In his presentation, Davis said Minnesotans want a transportation system that is well maintained; with public transportation options; reduced congestion; one that will attract people and businesses; and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

One option suggested by the governor’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee, he said, is a 10-cent-per gallon tax hike that would raise $308 million per year at an annual cost of $67 per driver. That equates to about the cost of one stadium beer per month he said.

In response to questions from the audience, Jim Hallgren, project engineer/manager, for MnDOT District 3, said upcoming Brained lakes area projects include the Highway 371 expansion to four lanes from Nisswa to Jenkins (funding slated for 2018) and the reconstruction of Business Highway 371 (South Sixth Street) from the historic Brainerd water tower to Willow Street (near Trinity Lutheran Church).

Davis said a top priority of Zelle’s since he took over in January has been to maximize the effectiveness of Minnesotans’ tax dollars. He said early retirement incentives have been used to reduce the work force.

When a person asked why the gas tax wasn’t originally indexed to be raised with inflation, Davis said that if it had been he might not conducting the current outreach to various Minnesota groups.

“That’s why, principally, I’m here,” he said. “Our transportation system needs investment.”

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. He may be followed at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.