Minnesota’s transportation program is driving forward with a vision for safer, more equitable systems and a spirit of collaboration across federal, state, local and tribal partners
By Nancy Daubenberger | Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Transportation
Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes and 145,000 center-lane miles of roads – constituting the fourth-largest roadway system in America. This vast road network across nearly 87,000 square miles of rural, urban, forest and water features represent a major opportunity.
In late May, the Minnesota Legislature passed, and Gov. Tim Walz signed into law, a transportation omnibus bill with several new dedicated revenue sources and additional funding for transportation in capital investment bills. Together, these bills will provide a $2.6 billion funding increase for our roads, bridges, rail, airports, waterways, active transportation and transit infrastructure. For one of the dedicated transportation revenue sources, the legislation will index the state’s gas tax to inflation to help bolster revenues for transportation over time. The gas tax will be updated each year to align with the Minnesota Highway Construction Cost Index, keeping revenues aligned with the actual costs of building and maintaining our systems.
In addition, through a supplemental bill enacted early in the legislative session, our agency was given budget authority to access additional federal funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). With this authority, along with state matching funds to unlock those federal dollars, MnDOT can now move forward with planned projects that were relying on that additional funding. The anticipated transportation revenues, along with projected needs, will be reflected in MnDOT’s 20-year Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP), which focuses specifically on anticipated costs for building and maintaining the state’s highways and interstates.
Public Safety and a Zero-Fatality Vision
Minnesotans have a very strong sense of community and it is reflected in our emphasis on roadway safety. We have historically managed land development and transportation network development in a coordinated manner, and it's helped us reduce safety risks for all users, whether they are driving, bicycling, rolling, or walking. We’ve built sidewalks and pedestrian facilities along much of our roadway system in urban and suburban areas, and our state is well known for its regional and statewide trail system. Additionally, we were an early adopter of a state-wide Complete Streets policy, which guides us in considering the needs of all users when we’re planning system improvements.
We’re proud of our accomplishments in making travel safer, but still have much more work to do. One aspect of this work is our Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program, which we started in 2003. TZD in Minnesota is a coordinated effort among MnDOT, the state’s Department of Health and Department of Public Safety, as well as transportation partners at the local levels – with the goal of reducing Minnesota traffic fatalities to below 225 per year by 2025.
The TZD program encompasses four “Es”: Enforcement, Education, Emergency Services and, of course, Engineering. On the Engineering front, we have been emphasizing low-cost, high-benefit, systematic safety solutions such as rumble strips, cable median barriers and enhanced pavement markings. Additionally, we have introduced J-turns – also known as Reduced Conflict Intersections – which help to reduce broadside crashes at intersections on four-lane divided highways. With such intersections, drivers entering the highway always make a right turn, which can be followed by a U-turn to reverse direction. They cannot drive straight across or drive halfway across the highway to make a left turn. This design reduces the potential for deadly T-Bone crashes and means less of a wait time for drivers on the side streets before entering the highway.
MnDOT also is working with local agencies on their traffic safety plans to position them to take advantage of federal funding opportunities, such as the Safe Streets for All grant program. We’re also excited that our state legislature recently established an Advisory Council on Traffic Safety in Minnesota, which will bring new perspectives into TZD and the overall safety conversation.
Climate and Equity
Beyond our coordinated efforts to enhance traffic safety, in December MnDOT and our local and tribal partners released an update to the Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan (SMTP), which is the highest-level transportation plan for Minnesota. This update drew on recommendations from local and tribal leaders, significant public engagement and a holistic analysis by multiple working groups of how to make our transportation modes work together more effectively.
As part of this process, we and our partners dug deeply into climate impact, with an emphasis on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Our discussions led us to envision having a goal to reduce the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) across Minnesota, per capita, based on population factors in different areas of the state. Our Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council suggested the target of reducing VMT by 20% per capita by 2050 (14% by 2040).
Also, MnDOT continues to factor equity into its transportation planning to help ensure that we meet the needs of all members of our community. We are building internal capacity to analyze and evaluate how we select and develop projects, and we’re collaborating with our partners to evaluate and address equity impacts of transportation investments and policies. One outcome of the legislative process has been to establish working groups for key topics, and to analyze greenhouse gas impacts and potential VMT reductions for expansion projects.
Getting the Job Done
With the additional federal and state money coming our way, MnDOT has been planning for an augmented program, but this poses a critical question: How do we engage the right talent and resources to manage such a program?
We know it’s going to be more demanding for MnDOT’s workforce, as well as for our consultants and extensions of our staff, to deliver these ambitious projects and programs. Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge. We’re all working with intensity to address this challenge.
Our industry is taking a concerted action to develop the professional workforce required to deliver the transportation infrastructure of the future. Specifically, we are looking at ways to get people interested in civil engineering, as well as planning and maintaining public projects. Part of enhancing such appeal is through technology, which is an area of interest for a lot of people coming into the workforce today. We are offering more opportunities to work with 3D design and planning, and to learn how to deliver projects more electronically.
MnDOT visits schools as part of a STEM outreach effort to let students know about this career field with the goal of striking a chord with them. We highlight the broad opportunities in this industry and emphasize that this is both a career and a way to make a difference in their communities by providing the transportation options to move about the state and to have things they need transported to them efficiently.
I believe that it’s critical to demonstrate that our workforce represents the communities in which we work and live. That way, community members see themselves reflected in our workforce and may want to enter the transportation field or even work for MnDOT itself.
Partnership Makes It Happen
I have worked for MnDOT for almost 24 years, across various positions, and in nearly every one of them it took close collaboration with our local transportation partners and our tribal partners to achieve success. As I’ve noted, whether it’s traffic safety and TZD, climate and equity, and any number of other initiatives, we all understand the importance of working together.
MnDOT will continue to look at our system holistically with an eye toward lifting our partners, moving programs forward and combining our efforts to bring federal transportation dollars to Minnesota and to improve transportation options for all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Daubenberger, PE, is Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), having been appointed to this role in 2022. As Commissioner, Nancy leads more than 5,000 professionals to develop and administer the state’s policies, plans and programs for state highways, aeronautics, transit and several other transportation modes, while collaborating with local and tribal entities and agencies to enhance their mobility assets.
Commissioner Daubenberger has served MnDOT nearly 24 years, serving in engineering and management positions, including two years as Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer before assuming her current role. Earlier in her MnDOT career, she served as the Assistant Commissioner for Engineering Services, the State Bridge Engineer, and served in planning, project management and design roles for the MnDOT Bridge Office and Metro District. Before joining MnDOT, she worked in consulting for about six years, in both bridge and road design.
In mid-2022, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials named Nancy the chair of its Committee on Right of Way, Utilities, and Outdoor Advertising Controls. In early 2023, Nancy also became a member of the Executive Committee of the Transportation Research Board (TRB).
Nancy is a Minnesota native and holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering degree from North Dakota State University as well as a Master of Civil Engineering degree (with a structural emphasis) from the University of Minnesota. Nancy and her husband reside in Woodbury, Minnesota, where they raised their daughter and son.