New tools for engaging the public in local road funding decision making

Ask any of Minnesota's county transportation officials whether there is a local road funding problem and you'll most likely hear a resounding "Yes!" Challenges these counties face include declining resources, rising expenses, deferred maintenance, and changes in who users are and what they want and need from their road system. The public, however, is typically unaware of these challenges—and therefore not engaged in the necessary decision-making process surrounding local road funding and service levels.

To help overcome this communication barrier, the Minnesota Local Road Research Board enlisted the help of U of M Humphrey School of Public Affairs assistant professor Kathryn Quick. "Our aim was to develop a better understanding of the knowledge gaps surrounding local transportation funding that need to be addressed, then create a public engagement tool and conduct direct interventions to begin to engage the public in this issue," Quick says.

The first challenge was explaining the complex nature of the road funding problem to a layman audience. To accomplish this goal, Quick and her research team—Zhirong Zhao, Guillermo Narvaez, and Emily Saunoi-Sandgren—developed an engaging presentation meant for a general audience that presents Minnesota's road funding challenges in an accessible yet comprehensive way. The presentation outlines the nature of the problem, the reasons why the public should care about the issue, the history behind Minnesota's road funding challenges, and the options for addressing the budget shortfall. "We found that even though most people weren't aware of the road funding problem, once they became aware they did care about it," Quick says.

Throughout the summer, the research team conducted a series of community meetings to engage the public with the road funding issue in three Minnesota counties. The most comprehensive of those interventions occurred in Beltrami County, where the research team worked directly with a diverse group of stakeholders including county commissioners, county engineers, volunteer fire departments, school district transportation supervisors, local businesses, and interested members of the general public. "We gauged the interests and concerns of these various groups," Quick says. "Then, we presented them with a range of options including changing roads from blacktop to gravel, adding restrictions and fees for heavy vehicles, having the county commission create a local sales tax, and even doing nothing."

According to Quick, the process generated interesting and promising results. The group's attitude toward a local option sales tax changed throughout the intervention period—at the outset many people were strongly opposed to a new tax, and by the end of the process most individuals and the group as a whole expressed strong support for a new tax. County transportation officials also gained a better understanding of what options stakeholders would and would not be willing to support. In addition, there was overwhelming agreement that doing nothing was highly undesirable. "Everyone agreed that this was a real issue, and that's an important message for policymakers," Quick says.

Beltrami County officials plan to use the insight gained during this process to help guide their transportation decision making. "Moving forward, we now have a core group of stakeholders who are knowledgeable of the transportation planning and funding issues that the county faces. Hopefully they will be advocates for any future changes in policies or funding," says county engineer Bruce Hasbargen. "Overall, these meetings have helped lay the foundation for future planning and funding discussions."

The research team created an engaging presentation meant for a general audience that
presents Minnesota's road funding challenges.

Researchers will document this public engagement process in their final report (May 2014); they anticipate that the process will serve as a model for the many other counties throughout the state and country facing similar challenges. In the future, the research team hopes to complete similar public meetings in additional Minnesota communities. In the meantime, local road officials looking for an immediate way to engage the public in their decision-making process can use the presentation developed by the research team.