'I'm done': Walz heads to dangerous rail crossing to push gas tax

Gov. Tim Walz says he’s fed up with Senate Republicans’ blockade of his proposed 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase, so he’s taking the argument to their districts.

Tuesday, the Democratic governor gazed into a giant pothole on Highway 47 in Anoka – a construction flagger held up traffic so he could do it – and said the real problem on that road was one of Minnesota’s most dangerous railroad crossings.

Local officials said regular backups at the crossing cause car crashes, including a fatal one in 2003. It’s not clear why a proposed overpass has languished without funding for decades, but Walz said a gas tax increase would allow the state to finally do the job.

“I have brought it out here, out under the dome of the Capitol, because I am done trying to watch somebody jam an ideological peg into what is truly a practical situation that needs to be solved,” Walz said during a news conference in Anoka.

The project would cost up to $45 million, according to informational materials provided by the state Department of Transportation.

Absent from Walz’s news conference at the nearby Anoka-Hennepin School District was the Republican senator who represents the area, Jim Abeler. In an emailed statement, Abeler said the project hasn’t suffered from a lack of funding, but prioritization.

“The funds to solve this problem will not require raising the gas tax, the sales tax or car tab fees,” Abeler said. “I will continue pushing to make this crossing a priority.”

Walz responded to Abeler’s statement by saying, “we’ll leave the podium up here and he can come stand in front of people and tell them how he’s going to get this done.”

Walz’s proposed gas tax increase has become political warfare between the first-year governor and Republicans who control the state Senate.

GOP leaders argue that they have put additional money into road and bridge projects in recent years by redirecting a portion of the state’s sales tax on auto parts and by advancing projects using borrowed money. 

“When he says he wants a gas tax increase, I’m saying we don’t need to do that,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in an interview. “We have a system right now that doesn’t require a tax increase and puts more money into roads and bridges and we’re going to stay on that path.”

Walz said what Republicans have done in recent years is not nearly enough. His proposed increases in the gas tax, vehicle sales tax, and vehicle registration fees would raise more than $10 billion over 10 years, his office has said.

“The alternative response of ‘no’ is not a plan. ‘No’ will not build this overpass,” he said. “’No will not make our roads safer, ‘no’ will not fix the potholes, and ‘no’ is what you’ve gotten for the last 50 years.”

The governor called a Senate Republican bill allowing drivers to decide at the pump whether they wanted to pay the extra 20-cent tax “slap-dash.”

Several local officials stood with Walz during his news conference at the school district administration building. But when a reporter asked for a show of hands if they supported his 20-cent tax increase, few did.

“I’m urging my senators to help fund this project,” said Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look. “As far as the overall statewide funding of transportation needs, that’s past my pay grade, and certainly I don’t get paid the big bucks for that.”

Walz’s Department of Transportation commissioner, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, could not provide any names when asked if Republican lawmakers had committed to voting for the tax increase. 

“We are in conversation,” she said.