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Managing Transportation Funding Challenges in Cook County

Krysten Foster, Cook County Highway Engineer  Lake Superior News
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COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA - June 25, 2019  (LSN)   Understanding the county’s diverse roadway system can be a challenge. It comprises one state highway, 297 miles of county roads, and hundreds of miles of U.S. Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources, and private roadways. As funding sources become more limited and competitive, the Cook County Highway Department is working diligently to address the longterm construction and maintenance needs for the 297 miles of roads under its jurisdiction. This week’s column summarizes Cook County’s road construction funding sources.
Cook County receives approximately $2 million per year from Minnesota’s Highway User Tax Distribution Fund (HUTDF) for state-aid road construction and engineering expenses, with $200,000 of this amount reserved towards projects within municipal limits.  In addition to this budget, Cook County relies on support from other sources to build vital transportation infrastructure projects.
The federal funding decline in northeastern Minnesota Federal funding changes are impacting the county’s road construction program. From 2006 to 2010, for example, either Cook or Lake County constructed a federally-supported transportation improvement in four of these five years.  This funding originates from the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) program under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.  In 2011, the federal government began an earmark ban, which means that STBG funds are now allocated through a series of formulas. These formulas rank Cook and Lake Counties sixth and fifth, respectively, of seven counties in northeastern Minnesota. The result is that Cook County’s Gunflint Trail improvements are currently the only federally-supported investment planned for either county between 2019 and 2023. Congress may change this outlook with a new bipartisan transportation funding bill or extend current programming levels as the FAST Act expires in September of 2020.
Legislature adjourns without a bonding bill There are state-funded transportation programs as well. Most individuals are familiar with the HUTDF, which comprises the state’s gas tax, license tab fees, and motor vehicle sales tax revenues. Local communities also rely on Minnesota’s Local Road Improvement Program (LRIP) and state bridge bonding.  These two state programs help counties 1) reduce the local cost share of eligible projects, 2) deliver priority projects sooner, and 3) address unfunded needs.
This year, Cook County applied for LRIP funding to reconstruct 5th Avenue West in 2021 instead of 2023 or 2024.  However, the Legislature did not enact transportation bond funds, which means that LRIP funding may not available for 2021.  Additionally, a program traditionally supported by state bonding for the replacement of deteriorated bridges or large culverts has not been funded.  This means that the upcoming structure replacement priority at Seagull
Creek will be funded 100 percent by the county’s annual state-aid allocation, leaving fewer annual state-aid dollars to go towards paving needs.
Transportation sales tax nears its cap Cook County receives around $750,000 annually from its one-half percent local option transportation sales tax.  A twenty-year bond issued in 2018 committed half of this revenue source to two bridge projects and the CSAH 17 reconstruction project, and an anticipated bond for reconstructing County Road 45 is expected to further diminish available revenue from this source. State law caps this percentage at one-half of one-percent for greater Minnesota counties, so we are already leveraging this funding source at full capacity.
Planning for the future This year’s three-mile South Shore Drive (CSAH 18) reconstruction project is bid at $2.7 million, or 150% of our annual construction allocation for projects outside municipal limits.  This is just one of many significant system needs.  In 2018, the county’s biennial pavement condition rating estimated over fifty miles of blacktop roads in poor condition.  Adding to this list of needs are ten unfunded structurally deficient bridges, five of which connect dead-end roads to community services.
As you can see, the questions we face are significant. Should projects be under-scoped to improve more miles of blacktop without addressing the lifespan of underlying culverts, which would decrease construction costs per mile?  If we must choose between two needs, are bridge replacement or pavement condition investments more important?  How will we replace crumbling sidewalks along county roads in the future?  These are a few of the tough questions that Cook County faces, as a steering committee of stakeholders drafts a twenty-year vision to guide the future of our local transportation system.
You have a say You can help answer these questions via our online transportation survey. The survey, which is available until July 14, takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete and is key to helping the county understand the road, bridge and other transportation needs of residents, property owners, business owners and visitors. The link to the Cook County Transportation Plan survey can be found at:, or a paper survey may be obtained at the Cook County Highway Department.

By:  Krysten Foster, Cook County Highway Engineer

 County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service




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About Cook County Minnesota

Cook Country Minnesota   Lake Superior News

Cook County is at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region in the remote northeastern part of the state, stretching from the shores of Lake Superior to the US-Canada border. By land it borders Ontario, Canada to the north, and Lake County, MN to the west.  The highest point in Minnesota, Eagle Mountain is 2,301 feet and the highest lake,  Total Area equals 3,339.72 sq miles

Cook County is home to three national protected areas:
Grand Portage National Monument
Superior National Forest
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Cook County include:
 Grand Marais     Lutsen Mountains
 Gunflint Trail      Superior Hiking Trail
 Grand Portage 

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