Forget Big Dreams – What Would You Settle For?

In case you missed it, there was a bit of a civil war on last legislative session following dueling columns about the 2015 transportation proposal and its advocacy coalition, Move MN.

Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, kicked things off with a piece called “Why I Support Move MN.” Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn responded a week later with “Why I Do Not Support Move MN.” Fawley’s supporters accused the opposite side of political naïveté, while Marohn’s supporters looked down on Move MN for settling for table scraps in a deal that they saw as fundamentally auto-focused.

Move MN has since morphed into two coalitions — Progress In Motion and Transportation Forward — and the issue promises to return at this year’s legislative session. Tweets from Transportation Forward events have been appearing in my Twitter feed for weeks.

Before we dive back in to debating tactics, though, it’s worth stepping back to consider the goals those tactics are meant to help us achieve.

If we look past the rhetoric of last year’s Move MN debate, we can see that commenters by and large weren’t falling victim to political naïveté or a lack of conviction. The debate was actually between closely aligned factions that happened to have competing goals. These distinct goals led to divergent, but rational, responses to the Move MN proposal.

In broad strokes, here’s how those groups broke down:

  • On the pro-Move MN side, you had a group that was focused on improving infrastructure necessary for people to get around without vehicles. They may have thought our transportation funding system is unsustainable, but that was a secondary concern compared to helping more people go where they need via walking, biking and transit.
  • On the anti-Move MN side, you had a group that was focused on reforming the transportation funding system (and government finance more generally). They may have wanted to make it easier for people to bike, walk and takes buses or trains, but that was a secondary concern to ensuring residents are able to sustain the infrastructure they build.

Negotiations theorists have something called a “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” – or the best option that will be available to achieve your goals if the deal falls through. This is more than knowing your bottom line. If you don’t know your BATNA, you could wind up giving ground to the other side for the sake of a goal you could have achieved without sacrifice. That’s why it’s unwise for one side to accept a compromise that’s worse for them than the BATNA: They could do better by simply letting the deal collapse.

Looked at through this lens, the differing opinions on the Move MN bill make a whole lot of sense. Those who supported the Move MN bill quite rightly thought passing it would provide money for infrastructure that’s not available now. They may have wanted more for their preferred mode or a different funding structure, but the compromise still achieves more of their goals than they’d see under the BATNA. So it makes sense that they supported the bill.

From a Strong Towns perspective, though, the bill was worse than the BATNA. They wanted reduced infrastructure funding at the state level and a change in how we pay for infrastructure. But the bill increased infrastructure funding, failed to make structural changes and likely would have made it harder to even debate the measures they wanted. When a group is pushing the #nonewroads hashtag, failure to reach a deal goes a long way toward achieving its goals.

I’m sure will publish more posts covering the policy debate as we move into the session. For now, though, I’d like to set aside those policies and consider only the prism through which we view them. I thought it could be enlightening for readers to answer the following questions in the comments:

  • What is your overall goal? This should be short and easy to clearly state.
  • What is the BATNA that follows from your goal? What are the best policy goals could you achieve even if the Legislature doesn’t approve any new transportation funding? These are not the policies you are willing to settle for; these are the biggest steps you could take toward your objective if the transportation bill fails.
  • What is the bare minimum that would be better than your BATNA? What set of policies is just good enough that it’s better than what you could achieve if the transportation bill failed? This is the type of deal you grit your teeth and vote for if all else falls because, however much more you wanted to achieve, this is still better than the deal falling through.
  • What would an ideal proposal look like? Negotiation is about give and take, so this probably isn’t going to happen. But hey, it’s important to know what you want.

My hope is that we focus on understanding each others’ larger goals and how those goals shape the internal logic driving our opinions on specific policies. I’ve kicked things off below with my own priorities. The exercise forced me to dig deep and really reevaluate my personal policy preferences and how (and even whether) they fit with my overarching objective. So share your own priorities in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation that helps us see a little better where we’re all coming from.

(Note: I cribbed large portions of this piece from one of my comments on the “Why I Do Not Support Move MN” article. Apologies to the few people who still remember year-old comments and had to suffer through a bit of self-plagiarism.)


What is your overall goal?

To align transportation infrastructure with our willingness and ability to pay for it.

What is the BATNA that follows from your goal?

  • Roads and bridges: With a financially unsustainable system, ceasing funding now rather than later saves money that would have been spent on projects we’re not prepared to support in the long term. Pricy new expansions or upgrades would be the first to stop as MnDOT and local road departments shift to a fix-it-first approach. Eventually, transportation departments would be forced to abandon some roads or allow them to revert to gravel — compelling them to invest resources in only the most-useful roads. This is going to happen eventually so long as we take on more maintenance obligations than we can pay for. Better to quit while we’re ahead until we have a rationalized system.
  • Bike and pedestrian: With the state money leveling off, cities and counties would be forced to fund their own bike and pedestrian improvements. This is the cheapest and most-local transportation infrastructure. If cities can’t pay for this, then they have bigger problems. (And they do.)
  • Transit: With operating subsidies leveling off and a transportation deal at an impasse, advocates for low-income families begin lobbying for transit vouchers paid for through a new Department of Human Services appropriation. 

What is the bare minimum that would be better than your BATNA?

  • If there is new revenue, the proposal must either: a) include sufficient funding to cover maintenance needs plus any new construction; or b) specify which parts of the system will have to be abandoned or see reduced service in order to cover the shortfall. Putting new money into the system without closing the maintenance gap or making hard choices would only fuel further misalignment between infrastructure and willingness to pay.
  • Any new funding source must be sustainable and dedicated. One-off annual appropriations from the general fund would not be acceptable. Upfront bonding to accelerate maintenance would be OK only if lawmakers specified a dedicated, sustainable source through which the state will repay those bonds. (I recognize laws in one legislative session can’t prevent future lawmakers from reversing those laws later. Still, there’s political power in making future transportation funding opt-out instead of opt-in.)
  • Those requirements apply to funding for all modes — roads, transit and bike/ped.
  • MnDOT must report annually on how well the state is keeping up with maintenance obligations. This report must state:
    1. The amount of maintenance done;
    2. The amount of maintenance obligations removed from the books through abandonment or turn-backs to another governmental entity;
    3. The amount of new maintenance obligations taken on (ie. through new construction);
    4. A comparison of how much maintenance was done to how much maintenance MnDOT needed to do to stay on track;
    5. A snapshot of how well funding streams are meeting projections.

What would an ideal proposal look like?

That proposal would have all the specifications in the item above plus the following:

  • Circuit breaker clause: The law would specify that work on new projects stops when there is no longer sufficient funding to cover maintenance.
  • New road pricing mechanisms: Congestion pricing would be authorized to maximize road efficiency. The state would shift to a milage tax in anticipation of the diminishing returns of the gas tax.
  • User fees: User fees would be expected to cover the vast majority of operations and maintenance expenses in order to create a feedback mechanism that aligns people’s decisions to their willingness to pay for them. Expansion — particularly for transit, which hasn’t benefitted from decades of state and federally funded expansions — could have a greater share of non-user revenue, especially since expansion would be constrained by the above circuit breaker clause.
  • County transit taxes: Counties would be allowed to levy sales taxes for transit improvements. This money could be used to create a regional transit network in partnership with other counties and bodies like Metro Transit. Or it could be used exclusively within the county — such as for bus routes in rural Greater Minnesota.
  • Value capture: Transportation agencies would be allowed to experiment with value capture mechanisms to fund projects. If economic development from corridor improvements and new interchanges is really as great as they say it is, let’s use that to fund the projects. 
  • Transportation vouchers: Transportation vouchers paid for through a new Department of Human Services appropriation would be provided to qualifying low-income families. Vouchers could be used towards vehicle expenses or transit passes at the family’s discretion. This would separate the often competing needs of transit and social services agencies so each could do what they do best — for transit authorities, moving people around; for social service agencies, helping low-income families. It would also improve the livelihood of low-income families caught in transit-free areas while we’re still building out the system.
  • Pedestrian and bike improvements: MnDOT would see increased funding for pedestrian and bike improvements targeted at improving accessibility where state roads break up neighborhoods and impede non-auto use. Outside of those areas, bike/ped infrastructure would be the responsibility of local communities. In exchange, cities would be given more freedom to fund those improvements, whether through sales taxes, new types of improvement districts or some other mechanism. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

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3 Responses to Forget Big Dreams – What Would You Settle For?

  1. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele March 7, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    I like your ideal proposal. My thinking is much aligned with yours, though I have an additional reason why I think the transportation packages we’re likely to see are worse than BATNA, more than just concern about financial sustainability of our entire mobility regime.

    I’m concerned that additional road funding subsidizes a land use that actually makes outcomes worse for everyone. Think about every one of the hundreds of towns in Minnesota, dozens of larger regional centers, which have been decimated by sprawl over the past few decades. The pace of this has really accelerated, and walkable urban destinations in these towns (hospitals, schools, factories, etc) have jumped ship to a corn field with a big parking lot. We’ve subsidized this land use by subsidizing cheap automobility. This has killed the type of land use which is more sustainable in every way, killing real wealth and destroying real places in the process. This has also compounded into our other bike/walk/transit investments: We now have placeless, unwalkable sprawl to connect with troublesome transit proposals (SWLRT, Bottineau, Red Line, Gold Line, etc etc), safe routs to school funding because we didn’t place schools on safe routes, and on and on.

    People are so concerned about how people get from A to B, that they completely miss how our failed thinking and failed investments continue to push A and B further apart for more people. We can no longer afford to subsidize and reward the long trip.

    Good post.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller March 7, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    My goal is to replace the word “vehicles” in the first sentence of the first bullet point with “cars.” Bikes and buses are vehicles too.

    (Sorry to nit-pick. This is a good post.)

  3. Devin March 9, 2016 at 9:48 am #

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever seen on Streets.MN for a number of reasons. Thank you so much for bringing clarity to such an opaque process and giving us the tools to understand what exactly our individual/group goals are and how to articulate them in ways that produce achievable outcomes. Bravo!!