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.

18 thoughts on “Move MN is a Litmus Test for Pragmatism

  1. Nathaniel

    I’m uneasy about it. I’m not opposed to an increase in the gas tax, but what’s the point if we’re going to get more of the same? Last thing we need is another 494/169 Interchange. Currently, I have little faith that we’ll get anything different.

    I believe we need to take not only a fix-it-first mentality, but a ‘let’s make it smaller’ mentality. This is for primarily 3 reasons;

    1) people are driving less across the board so we don’t need it,
    2) it’ll lower long-term maintenance costs, and
    3) if done right, it can help actually create better places

    What about using money to close streets? I think there is a great financial, environmental, social and cultural value in doing so. See here:

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        The coming financial collapse of thousands of cities, towns, counties, and states is because “if growth is good, more growth is better.” Not because of pensions or anything else people like to scapegoat. It’s literally because we double down on bad investments that lose us money as soon as the cash flow analysis switches from years to decades.

        We will soon no longer have the luxury to fix one thing at a time.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Doesn’t pragmatism usually mean you’re giving up something in return for something else? Compromise? I’m not sure that’s what this would bring.

    There are three ways compromise between two opposing ideologies can play out: Best of both worlds, some good and some bad, and worst of both worlds. Everyone I know is either in the second or third camp. If it’s the worst of both worlds, it’s automatically better to do nothing. But even if it’s “some good and some bad” we need to analyze if the bad we’re doing so vastly outweighs the good that it’s still better doing absolutely nothing.

    This could easily be one of the worst plans we’ve ever had as a state, for a variety of reasons. Building more rural/exurban lanes and roads to subsidize sprawling and financially insolvent land uses (instead, we should be telling townships to revert some roads to gravel)…. and then building un-urban LRT lines (like SWLRT and Bottineau) that basically legitimize a growth pattern and a land use that mercilessly throws us towards public and private insolvency, destroys the environment, and creates awful unhealthy geographies of nowhere. I’m concerned about this plan, to put it mildly.

    As Cap’n Transit of New York puts it, are we “winning by default, or losing by a landslide?”

  3. Alex

    The problem with the pragmatism argument is that it seems likely that Dayton and Thissen are still not on board with MoveMN. So who is it compromising with, the ones who oppose it or the ones who won’t support it? If your goal is to get money for transit, and throwing gobs of money at highways didn’t work last session, what makes you think that throwing even more gobs of money at highways will work this session? As a political sage once said, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, you can’t get fooled again!”

    This is speculative and ad hominem, but I can’t help thinking that schemes like this are the brainchild of idealists who go out to the coasts and get some diploma from some school covered in ivy and drink in a bar in Georgetown with people who raise their voices and come back here and pretend all Americans are the same. Minnesotans inherently distrust grandiose plans. Transit would be far better off if the legislature created a small, quiet capital funding program like Corridors of Commerce, or even better, the bridge maintenance fund, but for transit. It would have enough money to build an aBRT line or a one station LRT extension per year (or a suburban park-and-ride, theorically), but not enough money that it would catch the Republicans’ eye.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Your last two sentences contain a really good idea.

      I’ve long been frustrated that we only seem to be able to build LRT in billion dollar megaprojects, when it would be so much more useful/beneficial to the actual users to extend them incrementally over time, even if that isn’t exactly compatible with FTA funding schemes. Unfortunately, politicians only want to be photographed holding golden shovels, not brooms or hammers (i.e. regular maintenance).

      I have been toying with the idea of suggesting to our local elected officials that extending the Blue Line LRT to Penn Avenue in the short term would be the greatest thing the City/County could do to spur growth in that part of north Minneapolis (rather than making the northside wait 10+ years for the whole Bottineau to Brooklyn Park cornfields project to possibly happen, possibly fall apart). I’m gonna do a post on that soon. It sure would be a better use of funds than another distant park & ride.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I echo how awesome of an idea this is. What would it look like in legislation? Not sure a 7-county taxing district would work, politically. But I’d like to figure out how it could look.

  4. John Bailey

    As a Hamline Midway St. Paul resident who is going to use the heck out of the Green Line and the A Line, I sympathize greatly with wanting more urban transit service for the core neighborhoods. And believe me, there are some lines on that map that I look at and really scratch my head. But we will not be able to make the transit investments we need without the political support of suburban jurisdictions that comes from building a regional system. If we were like other states where cities and regions can make taxing decision on their own then maybe, maybe, you could see a situation where MPLS and StP just taxed themselves for more urban transit service. Far left utopias like Texas allow Dallas to do this for instance. But the MN leg would never go for that.

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