Move MN is a Litmus Test for Pragmatism

TC future transit map

This proposed future transit system depends on a metro-wide sales tax.

How you feel about the Move MN proposal tells you a lot about your politics. I don’t mean the overblown left-right spectrum. Rather, Move MN serves as a litmus test for the politics of compromise. Are you an idealist or a pragmatist? How optimistic are you about the future of the liberal state economy? Do you trust government policymakers to make smart decisions?

When it comes to transportation, the answers to these questions don’t conform to the classic political paradigm. After all, big road construction projects are the one thing that can unite Scott Walker, Mark Dayton, Amy Klobuchar, and Michele Bachmann. Most of the people I know who work in politics, government, or the media think this this is a good deal. Most of those I know outside those institutions think it’s somewhere between lukewarm good and horrible.

 

The Story So Far

Minnesota has a compelling transportation funding story. Like most places we’ve long had a dedicated gas tax for roads. That tax is currently at 47 cents per gallon and hasn’t increased since 2008. We also have a semi-stable (but small) transit funding stream in the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax and a quarter-percent metro sales tax. On top of that, half of state road funding comes from general fund revenue and bonding.

Since the the 35W bridge fell into the Mississippi and the famous Pawlenty gas-tax veto over-ride in 2008, there’s been a steady drumbeat for more transportation money for both roads and transit. But year after year, funding increases keep dying at the capitol, victims of the partisan legislative teeter-totter. There have been a few “blue ribbon commissions“, and last year the state legislature came awfully close to passing a metro area sales tax devoted to transit funding. It failed at the last second when the Governor and the Speaker of the House decided it wasn’t smart politics. (I wrote about all this at the time, so check any of those links for more details.)

Today the road lobby and the sales tax transit lobby have teamed up and come forward with a “grand bargain” that would raise money for both roads and transit. The proposal is a combination of a three-quarter percent metro-area sales tax for transit, and a 5% tax on “wholesale fuel” for roads (i.e. a gas tax without calling it a gas tax). Many people I talk with don’t think it has much of a chance in an election year, but at the very least, it sets the tone of the debate for the 2015 session.

 

Three Questions

stillwater bridge groundbreaking

Everyone agrees about a freeway bridge to nowhere!

For me, the first big question about the Move MN proposal is this: How will we spend the the road money? As the 35W bridge proved a bit too well, Minnesota’s road infrastructure is old. We need to spend hundreds of millions each year just to maintain, repair, and rebuild the bridges and roads we already have. “Fix it first” should be the beginning of every transportation discussion in the state, and MNDOT should be extremely cautious about expanding the road system. Outside of a precious few corridors (like Highway 14), the state needs a “no new roads” policy.

While I want to believe that MNDOT will focus on maintenance, recent state projects like the Stillwater bridge or the “corridors of commerce” priorities fly in the face of fiscal prudence. It’s difficult to believe MNDOT is serious about ending the sprawling ways that have marked the freeway-industrial complex for the last sixty years. What do you think?

The second big question revolves around transit: Where will transit investments go? So far, I’ve been a bit disappointed at the priorities of the Met Council and CTIB with its transit investments. After the Hiawatha line, most of the state’s transit projects have targeted TOD in the suburbs, a very difficult goal. In other words, Twin Cities’ transit projects aim at creating new density in places where it doesn’t exist, rather than intensifying already existing transit corridors. The Southwest and Bottineau corridors are good examples, but the Red and Orange lines do little to improve transit for the cities most transit-friendly areas. (The two exceptions are the Green Line and Metro Transit’s aBRT plans.) There are lots of political reasons for this failure to invest in prime locations, but so far, I find most of the city’s transit investments to be underwhelming.

(On the other hand, the transit map at the top of this post will never happen without the increase in the transit sales tax. How excited does that map make you?)

Means of Travel to Work in state of Minnesota - 2012 ACS - Source: American FactFinder

Means of Travel to Work in state of Minnesota – 2012 ACS – Source: American FactFinder

As David points out, a third problem with the Move MN proposal is bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The biggest strength of bike and walk projects is that they’re relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, this is also their big weakness, as cities, unions, and politicians don’t get to cut ribbons and bid on huge contracts. Small projects aren’t sexy, but at minimum, bike and ped funding should match its state-wide mode share (5%). That amount of money would be transformative for cities and towns across the state. Does this proposal meet this minimum standard?

 

Anti-Urban Extortion

In a way, the Move MN situation reminds me of New York City’s struggles to fund its transit system. In New York, attempts by the city to raise money through taxes and tolls have been consistently shot down by the state assembly in Albany. In much the same way, Greater Minnesota legislators vetoed the Metro Area’s attempt last year to “tax itself” for transit investment. Basically, rural and exurban interests are filibustering. They’re saying, “We won’t let you pay for your transit system until we get our roads.” To my mind, that amounts to political extortion, and prevents the Twin Cities from making forward-thinking policy investments without throwing a whole bunch of money into more freeways. That’s a frustrating political reality…

169 494 cloverleaf

The Benoit B. Mandelbrot Memorial Interchange at 169 and 494

There are a lot of questions in this post, and I don’t pretend to know the answers. The only thing that’s clear to me is that few in the mainstream media or at the capitol seem to be having an intelligent discussion about transportation funding. The Star Tribune’s recent op-ed exchange on the Move MN proposal was a debate between people who wanted only new highways and people who wanted mostly new highways. The extreme cloverleaf photo that accompanied Margaret Donahoe’s commentary speaks volumes about the kind of change that Move MN seems to promise. Should we be debating how best to shave thirty seconds off a commute from East Bethel?

If I were a legislator representing Saint Paul, at this point I’d remain on the fence about the Move MN legislation. I’d work hard to get MNDOT to commit to using revenue to maintain what we already have. I’d want them to promise to fix the thousand deficient bridges through the state before building any fancy fractal interchanges, freeway expansions past Maple Grove, or bypasses on the Iron Range. I’d try to get Metro Transit to commit to transit in places that already support walkable density before spending millions promoting development in roadside parking lots.

As it is, given the way that the two planned LRT lines bypass most of Minneapolis, given the way that MNDOT seems stuck in sprawlville, I’d be reluctant to support this proposal. But if I believed that MNDOT and the Met Council were changing (as some states are doing), I’d vote for it. So much depends on your degree of political optimism.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.