Minnesota Needs a “No New Roads” Pledge


Pink sign reads “Lanes 4 CAR not BRT, LRT”

On a slow afternoon a few weeks back, I found myself in the Union Depot in downtown Saint Paul, walking into a “Minnesota Go” event. Minnesota Go is the joint PR campaign put on by MN-DOT and the Met Council tasked with raising awareness of transportation funding shortfall before the 2014 legislative session. MN-DOT head Zelle and Met Council Chair Haigh have been touring the state presenting their respective powerpoints to members of the public, business leaders, and the media.

This is nothing new. Last year, the story was much the same. Before that, there were commissions and task forces, all aimed at “forging consensus” about the future of transportation investments in Minnesota. The Union Depot meeting was probably par for the course. Half the room were people who worked in various transportation fields (planners, MNDOT staff, lobbyists). Maybe a quarter of attendees were media. And the remaining bunch were actual members of the public: four old folks from Woodbury in the front row, with anti-transit signs; a PRT nutball who kept wanting the microphone during the Q and A; maybe a few innocent bystanders; and a bunch of pro-transit/bike/walk people. (I’m one of those.)


The handouts could use more kittens riding bikes.

After the pie-chart laden powerpoints and the cloying promotional video (“Transportation… It’s about getting from A… to B”), and after the Woodbury militia and PRT guy spoke their two cents, I got to ask Commissioner Zelle my question. Earlier this summer, Richard Davey, the Massachussetts DOT chief had made headlines by announcing a “no new roads” pledge. He said this:

 “I have news for you,” Davey said at a news conference yesterday. “We will build no more superhighways in this state. There is no room.”

OK the reason is silly, but when they handed me the mic, I asked Commissioner Zelle the same thing: Given the funding shortfalls that he’s just outlined, and considering the environmental and demographic trends facing the state, would he be willing to make a similar pledge? Why or why not?

As I knew he would, Zelle hedged. He said that Minnesota and Massachusetts don’t compare very well because Minnesota is a more rural state.” Then he defended MNDOT’s road expansion plans, saying that they were “looking at limited additional capacity”, and was conducting a careful “lifecycle analysis” of the new roads to make sure they were worth building.

Naturally, I was disappointed. Last year, there was actually a chance for the state to pass meaningful transit investment without having to choke on the bitter pill of additional money for freeway expansion. But for some reason, the Governor and Speaker Thiessen (from Minneapolis, of all places) choked at the last second, and didn’t push for metro area transit investment. This year, transit advocates face long odds, and have opted to hold their noses and join forces with the pro-road lobby. Nobody seems really happy about it, but in an election year, the people I’ve talked with think that a grand bargain coalition is their only chance at getting a metro area transit sales tax passed.

How Rural is Minnesota? Do We Have Enough Roads?

map rural urban USCommissioner Zelle is right about one thing. Minnesota is more rural than Massachusetts, at least by US census classification. Minnesota’s population is just over 70% urban, while Massachussetts’ is just over 90%.

But that difference isn’t huge. And there are two problems with MNDOT’s argument. The first is that the Twin Cities’ metro is already overbuilt. On a per capita basis, the Twin Cities’ ranks right next to Houston, Atlanta, and Saint Louis in terms of the amount of already constructed roads.* There’s no way that our transit investments will pay off if we continue expanding our urban population along ever newer, ever wider highways.**

The second problem is that I’m not sure that road expansion (e.g. bypasses) aren’t even good for rural economies. You’d have to dive into the Strong Towns literature to think through this fully, but in my experience, the main consequence of building a 4-lane bypass around a small city is the subsidizing of big box retail, and the abandonment of the main street. (I was just talking to a man from Blackduck who told exactly that story…)


Minnesota has a long way to go if it wants to reduce car dependence.


Where are the New Roads?


Green = new freeway.

The “Minnesota Go” presentation included a map of the planned “limited capacity expansions” (a.k.a. new roads), and they’re mostly rural connections: US Highway 10 from Fargo to Little Falls, and State Highway 14 from New Ulm to Rochester). I’m not sure of the price tag on these two projects, but they should be looked at with a critical eye, and updated VMT projections in mind.

But these green roads aren’t the problem. The real issue is the current MNDOT spending priorities. If you look at the recently released “Corridors of Commerce” proposal, MNDOT’s seems focused on expanding sprawl. The two largest items are an expansion of I-94 by exurban Rogers (pop 10,000) and an expansion of the 610 ring road out past the edge of Maple Grove (also near Rogers). These two (very similar) freeway expansions account for over half of the $300M “corridors of commerce” budget.

(Question: Why would Mark Dayton go out of his way to build massive new freeways for Rogers, a town whose voters elected Rep. Joyce Peppin, a card carrying member of the Taxpayers League, by a 2/3 margin?)

The Politics of a No New Roads Pledge

There’s no doubt that transportation investments are deeply political. Not only do people like Chris Christie and Rob Ford use road and transit projects like giant weapons, construction unions and real estate developers have huge influence at the state capitol. So I understand how difficult it might be to re-think MNDOT’s role as a state sprawl machine.

But as a lefty urbanist, it’s impossible to take the Minnesota Go campaign seriously when MNDOT’s actual spending priorities remain fixed on expanding exurban freeways. Zelle’s mumbling about having a “fix it first” policy means next to nothing when MNDOT is spending almost a billion dollars on new highways and bridges to Rogers and Albertville (Pop. 7,000) or Houlton, Wisconsin (Pop. 386). Quite frankly, the “chicken little” narrative with which MNDOT is framing their campaign (e.g. “The bridges are falling, we need $21B just to maintain everything!”) seems downright dishonest as long as we’re expanding freeway lanes into exurbia.

What would the political landscape look like if Zelle publicly announced a “new new roads” pledge? What if the proposed new taxes actually were invested in maintaining our existing infrastructure, and expanding our transit system? That would be something that urbanists, environmentalists, and transit advocates might actually support. Who knows, maybe you could convince a few conservative, low-tax types too.

Until then, if you think the Minnesota Go campaign isn’t business as usual, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Walker Dayton Bachmann Klobuchar BFFs. (Zelle is on the far right, having the most fun.)


* According to 2007 FHWA data, Minneapolis/St Paul, Houston, Atlanta, and St. Louis all have 5.0 miles of roadway per 1000 people. Only the Kansas City is higher at 6.0. For comparison, Portland, OR is at 3.8, Chicago at 2.9, Denver at 4.0…

** For the record, I tried hard, but failed to find decent roads per capita numbers at the state level, other than finding out that North Dakota and Texas are at the top of those lists… Heck, I even skimmed through the odious Texas Transportation Institute’s Mobility Report, to no avail.

14 thoughts on “Minnesota Needs a “No New Roads” Pledge

  1. Michael RodenMichael Roden

    Maybe the political pill could be made a little easier by taking a page out the of GOP’s handbook: for every lane-mile that is constructed, a lane mile must be removed. This could be done by either by converting to bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, or in the case of rural highways simply narrowing the pavement.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

      “Quite frankly, the “chicken little” narrative with which MNDOT is framing their campaign (e.g. “The bridges are falling, we need $21B just to maintain everything!”) seems downright dishonest as long as we’re expanding freeway lanes into exurbia.”


      Of course, what we could do is pay consultants to operate rickshaws on all these routes instead of studying them endlessly and fruitlessly.

  2. spiderleggreen

    Yes, we have enough roads. I think the outstate road projects are mostly political decisions meant to firm up the outstate vote for Dayton. Interesting how it’s difficult to get spending on the places people actually live. I think there must be more money in expanding rather than maintaining infrastructure. Just like the U of M prefers fancy new buildings to maintaining and upgrading the old ones.

  3. Froggie

    To be fair, there are two counterarguments that could be made to Bill’s position: freight movement (which, in a heavy agricultural production state like ours, is significant), and safety (which is what’s driving the Highway 14 proposals, pun intended). Sometimes, the only way you can fix it is by building a new alignment road. The argument that bypasses “subsidize big box at the expense of downtown main streets” has more to do with local land use decisions than it does the building of the road. It’s up to the town whether they do right by the bypass or not.

    1. Matt Steele

      As Alex’s recent article noted, freight movement is in the low double digit percentages. So if we really wanted to help freight move, we’d work towards reducing personal VMT 5 or 10 percent and everything would be fine.

      1. Alex

        The reason the freight movements are important isn’t because they justify higher-capacity roads, but because they annoy the suburbanized rural residents who drive these highways in passenger cars. So it’s a political thing.

        Similarly, to Charlie Zelle’s point, the bigger difference between Minnesota and Massachusetts is that the latter still has good-sized patches of land that still function as cities, not only in Boston but in several places across the state. In contrast, MN just has a handful of miniscule patches of city left, and those exclusively in Minneapolis & St Paul (maybe).

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I don’t have a strong opinion about Hwy 14. I haven’t looked at population, traffic, cost or safety figures for it. That’s be an interesting Streets.mn discussion…

      I think you’ll always find people who want to add lanes to some freeway somewhere in the state, and you can always figure out a way to justify it if you want to. We need to be more judicious about the “lifecycle analysis” (Zelle’s words) of these investments.

      MNDOT seems to be on an inertial “complete the network” path. The problem is that there’s always more “network” out there to be added, and “completed.” Always… At some point we should draw the line and say, “OK, that’s enough.”

      PS Interesting article here from a Chicago suburb that can’t afford to maintain their roads any more: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-long-grove-roads-privatization-met-0114-20140113,0,177939,full.story

  4. helsinki

    Excellent post.

    I think such a pledge would actually be a politically popular. The development industry may have pull, but it’s constituents can’t be numerous enough to sway the issue electorally if it were stated in terms as clear as those written here. I doubt the taxpayers of Granite Falls or Fergus Falls or any other rural Falls think it’s a brilliant idea to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on freeway interchanges for the Twin Cities’ fringe suburbs.

    Development interests may control the transportation debate now, but I suspect this is merely because they have the Growth (we need it and developing virgin land brings it) and Congestion (it’s bad and increased freeway capacity solves it) rhetoric down to a science.

  5. Monte Castleman

    I know this isn’t the place to argue my pro-roads, pro-sprawl viewpoints, but I thought I’d comment on the “almost a billion dollars” figure for the three projects. According to my math, you have 1) The I-94 lane expansions: $35-$46 million, MN 610: $103-$131 million, and Minnesota’s 55% share of the St. Croix Crossing ($580-$676)*.55= $319-372 million. Adding them up you get $457-$549 million. Even at the high end this isn’t my opinion of “almost a billion dollars”.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      OK, I love when people check the math. My initial draft said “half a billion”, but then I added a bonus for the fact that the St Croix crossing is actually twice as expensive.

  6. Tom Wald

    Former California Gray Davis made some sort of “no new roads” statement several years ago. It may have been a “no new freeways” statement.

  7. Eric SaathoffEric

    At that meeting, Zelle said Gov Dayton was a “road guy,” while Zelle, himself, is a “bus guy.” I took that to mean that Dayton really likes cars, and of course he’s not going to appoint someone who doesn’t. Maybe we’ll get a lieutenant gov who’s not so into cars.

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