Across Minnesota, local township boards are charged with maintaining thousands of miles of gravel roads. That mission is particularly vital to agriculture and commerce, yet while they have few other expenses, many struggle constantly with regular upkeep and maintenance needs.
A new bill from Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, would take a step toward changing that. Jasinski’s bill would create a new program called the Township Road Improvement Grant to provide funds for township road projects across the state. JThe bill was included in the Senate bonding bill, which passed with support from Republicans and a handful of DFLers. However, bonding bill negotiations between the DFL controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate ultimately stalled.
All is not lost, the bill could still be included in a package lawmakers hope to pass in a special legislative session tentatively set for next month.
Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors Chair Gary Ebling says the money Jasinski’s proposing would provide welcome relief. Bridgewater spends about half its yearly budget on road and bridge maintenance. That’s actually on the low end compared to other area townships.
By comparison, Supervisor Bernard Frederick said that Woodville Township just outside Waseca spends nearly all of its budget, approximately $250,000, maintaining 45 miles of gravel and paved roads.
In order to fund those repairs, Woodville Township has had to increase taxes by 10% or more every year for the last five years. Even so, Frederick said some roads are in such poor shape that they are hardly worth fixing.
Bridgewater’s Ebling said that many townships are in a particularly tricky position because so many of their roads were built anywhere from 70 to 150 years ago. In those days, the region was much less densely populated and building standards were different. Most importantly, farm equipment has become much larger and heavier than it was when those roads were designed and built, extracting extra wear and tear. That’s forced townships to shell out more and more for extra gravel and repairs.
The program Jasinski’s bill lays out would effectively launch as a pilot, with $8 million in seed money. An advisory committee composed of township officials and engineers would be responsible for considering proposed projects and distributing funds to those of greatest need.
The bill is certainly much smaller than other proposals backed by Jasinski and Senate Republicans, such as $80 million for local road improvements and $25 million for bridge replacement, but it provides an innovative concept that could be expanded in future years.
David Hann, a former Minnesota senator who now serves as executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, said that the program could prove a game changer for townships, which have to maintain some 55,000 miles of road across the state.
“This bill has broad support among 2,000 townships across the state and almost 1 million townships residents,” he said.
Currently, most of the maintenance budget for state and local highways is funded by Minnesota’s Highway Users Tax Distribution Fund, which collects more than $2.3 billion in revenues, primarily from gas, vehicle registration and vehicle purchase taxes. In 2019, approximately $425 million was made available to Minnesota’s 87 counties. An additional $194 million allocated to cities with a population of more than 5,000, and $36 million allocated to aid townships across the state.
Under Minnesota’s funding formula, localities with more road mileage and population enjoy a larger share of the funding. Yet even larger townships like Bridgewater Township, which is adjacent to Dundas and Northfield, struggle for adequate funding.
Paved roads may be far more durable in the long term, but they’re a luxury few townships can afford. According to Rice County Engineer Dennis Luebbe, the cost to reconstruct and pave just 1 mile of gravel road is likely to top $1 million.
Township officials tend to be fiscally conservative, so when improvements are made to a stretch of township roads, the cost tends to be funded at least in part by additional assessments added to the tax bill of those who directly benefit from the project.
In total only a fraction of township roads are paved, and those exist in well-traveled townships like Bridgewater, which last year considered incorporating as its own city and recently increased its Board of Supervisors to five members.
For smaller townships like Havana in Steele County, 100% of township roads are gravel. That means that the township has to plow roughly $75,000 a year into maintenance, much of that devoted to laying fresh gravel.
Havana Township Supervisor Larry Schubert said that he believes Jasinski’s proposal would be helpful and hopes to see it in the final bonding bill. With additional funding from the state, he said townships could invest in improving ditches, reducing drifting during the winter and improving water drainage.