State Senate Transportation Committee chair also offers his thoughts on election's impact on funding

    Legend has it that a prominent Minnesota legislator many years back, who was at the very least unfamiliar with the growing and harvesting of sugar beets, said on his way to visit the Red River Valley one fall that he was eager to see sugar beets being "combined." As anyone who knows anything about the beet harvest knows, they aren't combined, they are, instead, sliced off at the top and lifted out of the ground.   

    State Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis DFLer who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, may or may not have been aware of that semi-mythical utterance in error regarding how sugar beets are harvested when he visited Crookston Wednesday. Either way, he wanted to see for himself the process of harvesting sugar beets and what happens to them once they're out of the ground.   

    So, scheduled to speak about transportation issues in Crookston to county engineers from across the region, as well as Polk County commissioners and Minnesota Department of Transportation officials, Dibble added a wrinkle to his itinerary: Polk County Engineer Rich Sanders – who hauls beets during the harvest himself – took him to one of Bruce Erdmann's beet fields east of Crookston. There, Dibble rode in a truck as a lifter filled it with beets, and then Sanders drove him to the Crookston American Crystal Sugar factory and piling station so Dibble could see for himself how everything transpires.   

    As a result, Dibble was more than an hour late to his scheduled transportation talk at the Polk County Government Center in Crookston, but he figured it was a fair tradeoff because he now knew much more about the sugar beet industry than he did earlier that day.

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    Dibble, accompanied by Abbey Bryduck, transportation policy analyst with the Association of Minnesota Counties, visited three other cities in addition to Crookston as part of his transportation tour. He said each visit was about hearing firsthand the transportation needs and issues in each specific area, so that when he and other legislators at the State Capitol in St. Paul debate legislation relating to transportation projects and funding, they have a better idea of what they're talking about.   

    "When we talk about needing money, it's good to know what we're using that money for," Dibble said. "Otherwise, down at the Capitol, we're sitting in a room a lot like this one just looking at numbers. It can get real abstract real quick."   

    He said it would help even more if the many county engineers in the room took their specific areas' legislators on tours of their county roads and highways. "We need to show them our broken-down county roads and bridges," Dibble said.   

    With the DFL in control of the Minnesota Senate and House as well as the governor's office, Dibble said significant process in the way of transportation funding and legislation has been made in recent years, to the point that "I'm optimistic we're in really good shape to pass a comprehensive bill next year that will get needed money to all parts of the state."   

    It's critical that all modes, methods and jurisdictions are included in the transportation discussion, he said, so that no one can be accused of simply wanting only what's good for them or their corner of the state.   

    "We need to keep beating that drum when it comes to the needs," Dibble said. "We need to know the details about the gaps; what you're able to do now versus what you need to do but you can't."   

    Armed with more pertinent knowledge of the state's transportation needs and vision going forward, he said it will be more difficult for legislators to stand behind a podium and "give fake answers that don't match what's going on in the real world."   

    The Senate has in the recent past and continues to make more progress than the House when it comes to approving a transportation bill. Dibble said that he and others may have been guilty over the past couple years of trying to take "too big of steps." But, he added, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators seem to not be shying away from talking about transportation, and that can only be a good sign.   

    "Transportation is such a big deal; it takes a lot of political focus and a lot of energy to do more than talk and really do something," Dibble said. "Maybe we're on the verge of really being able to do something."   

    The results of the 2014 Election that is now less than a month away will have a big say in what can be done, and what can't be done, Dibble said. Stressing that he didn't want to dip into politics too much, he made no bones about his feelings on the fate of transportation funding in Minnesota hinging on the ballots Minnesota voters cast next month.   

    "There is a way this election can come out that's good for this," Dibble said. "And there's a way the election can go that will stop this conversation dead in its tracks. I'm just going to say that right now because it's the truth."