ST PAUL, Minn. — From a distance it looked like someone had painted the front steps of the Minnesota State Capitol blaze orange Thursday. But as you got closer you could see they were traffic cones lined up in neat rows.
There were 502 of them, signifying the number of people of who died in traffic fatalities in Minnesota in 2021. It was the highest roadway death toll here since 2007, when the state logged 510 deaths.
The cones served as a dramatic backdrop for a press conference by a coalition of safety advocates, highway builders, law enforcement and elected leaders. They called on lawmakers to invest more in safer roads and issued an urgent plea to drivers to slow down.
"The people who were killed and injured are very real and we want the state to do more to reduce these numbers," Margaret Donahoe, Executive Director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, told reporters.
"With a $9.3 billion general fund surplus, we are here today to advocate for the permanent dedication of funds that keep Minnesota’s highways, bridges and transit safe and reduce avoidable fatalities."
Cars are safer than they ever were, and the state's been gradually widening and upgrading highways and bridges. The thing that's been harder to control is speed, especially as traffic counts dropped during the COVID pandemic.
In fact, there are several bills pending in the House that would create pilot projects to install automated radar speed enforcement cameras in school zones, work zones and other problems areas.
Paul Aasen, who heads the Minnesota Safety Council, said it's worth exploring because speeders outnumber patrol officers.
"Law enforcement across the state is understaffed by about 20%, so there simply aren't enough officers to put in enough places to slow enough people down."
There's also the issue of intersections that weren't designed with this era's traffic levels and speeds in mind. Blaine City Council Member Julie Jeppson pointed to Minnesota Highway 65 in her part of the city.
"One and a half miles of Trunk Highway 65 run right through the center of my city. It has five of the six most deadly and dangerous intersections on it in the seven county metro," Jeppson explained.
"I’m here today to help ensure that the 2022 Legislative Session doesn’t adjourn without meeting its obligations to our counties and cities that must have these investments to keep our citizens safe on the roads."
Among those at risk in work zones are the people who install the orange barrels and traffic cones to separate moving traffic from the people who are working on a road project.
Reed Leidle, the vice president of Safety Signs, said his crew are installing markers or removing them during nonpeak hours when motorists tend to drive faster because there's less congestion.
"Often the only thing separating those fast cars and the workers are these little plastic cones," Leidle told KARE.
"We just ask people to remember that each one of these workers has a family. The men and women who are out there, we just want people to slow down."
Earlier in the day MNDOT announced its list of 184 road and bridge projects for the coming highway construction season.
One of the bills with a fairly good chance of passing this year would devote 100% of the sales tax on auto parts and car repairs to the state's highway construction fund.
Currently, only half of that revenue stream goes the Highway Users Trust Fund.
The state's 6.875% sales tax is projected to generate $303 million this fiscal year on auto part and repairs sales alone.
Watch the latest political coverage from the Land of 10,000 Lakes in our YouTube playlist: