Move MN is a Good Compromise


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Last week I wrote a column about Move MN, the transportation bill at the legislature, calling it a “litmus test for pragmatism.” Here was the punchline:

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.

While I stand by the points I made in that piece, since then I’ve had a bunch of conversations with folks here at streets.mn and who work with the legislature. I guess I’ve kinda sorta changed my mind. The Move MN proposal seems like a good idea to me. In the abstract, it’s not perfect. But within the Kafkaesque world of US transit policy, this is a good deal.

Transit Funding is Always a Mess

The first reason why Move MN is a good deal is that US transit policy is a complete mish-mash. For roads, we’ve developed a massive Robert Moses “lock box” of dedicated funds where top-down bureaucracies wield money and regulations with impunity. I hardly need to remind you of the million problems with the asphalt-industrial complex, but the key point is that DOTs don’t have to scrape together road money from the corners of governmental couch cushions. (At least not yet…)

Transit money, on the other hand, is crude legislative sausage. The course of true transit never did run smooth, and each metro area runs into a few intractable problems. The first is a constant struggle between jurisdictions. Big metros that cross state lines have particular difficulty (See Christie, Chris). Imagine having to compromise with Scott Walker every time you wanted to fund a new line! Luckily in Met Council Minnesota, county shenanigans aside, jurisdictions aren’t much of an issue.

The second big problem is the state vs. metro political divide. All cities deal with state legislatures that rarely give them power to raise taxes to pay for transit. New York and Chicago both struggle to pay for their aging (and effective) transit systems, and plans to raise money through tolling or taxes are routinely shot down by state lawmakers.

And those are the “good, urban, blue” states. Atlanta built its transit system with zero state money and little regional cooperation (and MARTA is half-assed as a result). The same is true for Arizona, Seattle, and Denver. LA is a mess. I could go on…

I suppose we’ve been lucky here in Minnesota that some state general fund money has gone to build our two light rail lines. I don’t know all the hairy details, but in general, our Metropolitan government system seems to get some statewide support when it needs it (e.g. the MVST money). That said, at the rate of one line per decade Minnesotans will be stuck it their cars for a long time.

Metro Taxing Autonomy is the Key

So how have all these places paid for their transit investments? In almost all cases, state legislatures have given metro areas some autonomy to raise their own taxes. Places like Denver, Indianapolis, and even the Carolinas  have received “permission” by states to have hold transit referendums. Most of them pass, and these cities use area sales taxes to pay for transit investments.

I’m sure that the architects of the Move MN proposal have thought of this. Would the state legislature give the 5- or 7- county Metro permission to have a referendum for the .75¢ transit sales tax? If it did, would it pass?

One of the differences is that most of those cities are in the west or the sunbelt, where referendum politics is the norm. I’m guessing that Minnesota policymakers don’t want to go down that messy road, which can lead to all kinds of problematic outcomes. (Though we did reject the odious Voter ID law…) Instead, the “Minnesota way” is to have legislators make the decisions. And despite last minute back-room deals, I can live with that. We have the highest voter turnout in the country (though still too low), and Minnesotans should be proud of our (relatively) well-functioning government. (Just don’t get me started on the Vikings stadium.)

So we have compromise. The metro area gets to pass its regional transit sales tax without a referendum. And the bill raises a whole bunch of money for transit, biking, and walking while throwing a chunk of “gas” money into the pot for roads .

I haven’t shed my previous qualms about the bill. It’d be nice if the metro area could have taxing autonomy without having to compromise with unrelated road interests. (And I agree with Chuck that we need more regional and municipal control over our transportation decisions.) It’d be nice if MN-DOT stood by a “fix it first” policy instead of building new exurban freeways to nowhere. It’d be nice if our transit planners put light rail stops where the people are, and invested only in places that commit to density and walkability. It’d be nice if the lower-case ‘e’s on the Move MN website were shaped differently

But I’ve spent a few days reading about transit funding in every other city in America, and I’ve yet to find my utopia. Relatively speaking, and despite the SWLRT fiasco, Minnesota has a decent institutional structure for transit investments. All we need now is a bit of freedom to fund our plans, and a smarter conversation about where to invest. The Move MN proposal is a good idea that would do a lot for Twin Cities’ transit. Lobby day is next week. Let’s make this happen.

Twin Cities Future Transit Map by Kyril Negoda

Twin Cities Future Transit Map by Kyril Negoda

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24 Responses to Move MN is a Good Compromise

  1. Alex March 6, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Rather than transit funding going in the direction of highway funding in that it primarily comes out of a dedicated funding stream, I’d prefer that highway funding went the way of transit funding by putting gas taxes into the general fund and making MnDot beg for the entirety of its $2-2.5b budget. It seems like there would be more accountability if legislators were making these decisions biennially. Did we go through all that trouble to have a democracy just to have our funding decisions made by our great-grandparents?

    But practically, I want to be able to get to my mom’s house in Plymouth, so I think Move MN is an acceptable compromise.

    • Froggie March 7, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

      Having lived in several areas of the country where this is the de-facto case, with transportation funds routinely being raided by a given state legislature so they could “balance the budget” without “raising taxes”, I do not agree with this suggestion.

      Several of you may not like that Minnesota’s gas tax is Constitutionally protected, but let me tell you that it’s spades better than most of what’s out there elsewhere in the country.

  2. Jeff Peltola March 6, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    I’m not so sanguine about transit governance. It’s a work around a work around around… State/MnDOT, MetC, CTIB, GEARS, HCRRA & siblings, counties, cities… on bended knee to FTA (& at times STB). Perfectly clear, right? And, too make it more fun, project responsibilty for new lines shifts from whomever (e.g. Henn Cnty, directed by elected officials) to an office headed by holier-than thou expert, who reports to someone 3+/- layers below an elected official (the Gov). Still makes sense? This, despite the entity responsible for sales tax & its allocation, CTIB (consisting mainly of county elected officials) is responsible for some 60% of state/local funding, yet w/o direct project oversight. Still making sense? Oh yeah, another acronym, CMC (Corridor Mgmt Cmte) — mainly elected officials — makes a “recommendation” on project scope & budget as an “advisory” panel to a groyp of unelected people appointed by the Gov (MetC), which itself doesn’t have a funding responsibility. Make sense? Of course not. I want our transit sys built out fast, & support more $’s now, but we can’t go on like this anymore. It’s an embarrasing disgrace. One idea: Call CTIB CTB & put it in charge of Metro Transit.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 6, 2014 at 11:30 am #

      Ew, you just opened up the sausage factory.

      Um, yes. Good idea. CTIB kinda sucks. It was birthed in the worst circumstances (veto over-ride, which like the legislative equivalent of the back seat of a rusty Dodge Valiant). It should give a lot more influence to the Met Council. Where can I find the CTIB membership and voting allocation data? Is there any hope of changing its political dynamics?

      But even if we do nothing here, CTIB will still be there. Maybe this SWLRT fiasco will be a lesson to CTIB. Also, the Northstar is kind of a fiasco too! Meanwhile, I have every confidence that the Green Line will blow away its projections almost immediately after it opens. How can we get CTIB to invest where the people are & transit has potential?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 6, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

      BTW, the only interesting writing I can find on CTIB is here: http://pa5113.blogspot.com/2011/04/i-wrote-blog-last-week-about-political.html

      We should cover them like a blanket here at streets.mn. It strikes me that there’s a ton of jockeying for position, threats to withdraw, games over geography, people doing just about anything to get transit in their district (whether they deserve it or not). And you end up with pretty shoddy proposals in the name of geographic equity. (IMO any transit line that goes in to the ‘burbs had better damn well go through a dense part of the city on its way there.)

      But anyway, is this a separate problem? Or do you think that more money would only make this situation worse? How un-coordinated with the Met Council are they? Give CTIB the Metro Transit system might be a bad idea if it leads to more subsidizing of things like the opt-out buses…

      • Jim March 6, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

        If the state can fund all these agencies, they can change all these agencies authority or existence. The sausage factory has to be dismantled if we think we’re going to get any different results. Local control is the way you get everyone to go along in MSP or Greater MN. No one outside the Cities wants anyone there telling them what to do. Give that to them.

        Lots of people and places will make bad decisions, but they will be smaller bad decisions and citizens will be able to have more direct accountability. The places that are really savvy and have the will to tax themselves will get very good results. And if they don’t, it’s their own faults.

        Give everyone the chance to work their selfish interest. We can’t take being selfish out of the equation, so why don’t we let it work itself out. Some people will find better ways to govern themselves than others.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke March 6, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

          BTW, who is sponsoring the bill for abolishing state aid and granting local funding control this year? I’d love to write a piece all about what a great idea that is…

          • Matt Steele
            Matt Steele March 6, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

            I’m sponsoring that bill.

  3. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang March 6, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    The anti-transit, pro-sprawl Center for the American Experiment types are finding success employing one of the oldest political strategies–that of divide and conquer. Although greater Minnesota and suburbia literally depend on a strong urban core to survive, the anti-urban folks have effectively created false competing interests between the three groups at the state Capitol which result in slow progress (if any) due to political horse trading that ends up neutering urban oriented policy that would benefit the entire state’s economy.

  4. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele March 6, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    I’m convinced this outstate/metro divide is fabricated by politicians for political gain, but not grounded in reality.

    In reality, it’s big cities, small towns, and rural agriculture against sprawl.
    Urban/rural vs suburban/exurban.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam March 6, 2014 at 11:41 am #

      At least it should be. I think some exurban residents mistake themselves for rural dwellers and vice versa, though.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 6, 2014 at 11:57 am #

      Well, as you say, it’s not bounded in economic (or geographic) reality. But it IS grounded in political reality for the simple reason that legislatures don’t want to give up control / power. If they said, “OK cities, tax and spend what you want” that would be giving up a lot of power previously held by legislatures. So they don’t. (And you can see why they don’t even if it is good policy…)

  5. Jim March 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Bill – Don’t get soft on us now. Good short term politics, yes. Does it stop us from throwing billions down the drain that we don’t have (over decades, folks, not this budget cycle) to fund projects that will make us ultimately poorer as a state? No.

    That’s really not a compromise we can afford, literally and in the long term. There’s all kind of buzz around budget surpluses and other really convenient mechanisms for a political victory here, but that ultimately kicks the can down the road unless we also get changes to mechanisms that inhibit us from doing road and transit projects right. And keep us from doing the really bad ones that are someone’s pet project. (Hold on, I have an incoming call from Stillwater to answer….) We are looking at the wrong objective if we are only just looking for a nice transit slush fund.

    If we pass the funding without abolishing State Aid, getting better planning agency process determined (not a 8 agency multi-headed monster with pre-determined outcomes), giving local municipalities the ability to self determine their own transportation priorities and work together with other directly cities, without having to beg for money from counties who have a completely different set of priorities, we’re going to spend a lot of money and get very little in return. If Eden Prairie had to pony up lots of it’s own money for SWLRT to come to town, do you think the project would look the same as it does today? Would they pay for the 10s of millions of dollars to build the bridges over freeways and swamps it would take to make it happen or would there be a different solution to serve transit needs of people there.

    Then we’ll be back in 4-5 years having this same discussion over again, except wondering where that last chunk of money went and why we aren’t better off after making such a huge investment. The funding, implementation and feedback loop have to be aligned, and all of our policies prevent those things. Which is why we can have political success and transportation system failure. I’m okay if this doesn’t solve all of those at once (got to unwind 40 years of bandaids somehow), but not okay with none of them.

    Why are we okay with writing everyone in transportation a blank check and keeping our fingers crossed that the implementation will work out fairly and productively? That doesn’t seem to be going so well reading this morning’s headlines.

    The cities you listed who funded transit themselves all had one thing in common – They made a list of projects, agreed on a price tag and funding and they stuck to them. Some of those places ran out of money, some of those places leveraged other funds, so it’s no guarantee.

    What we can learn from those other regions is that if you give a municipality the chance to tax itself and make people spend their own money instead of others, you reduce the cross regional squabbling because you either pony up or you head home. That’s negotiating in good faith, that’s what no one can do right now because there’s too much money sloshing around in the small circles of people who hold the sway on the decisions. Everyone else is left to squabble over peanuts. That’s the best we can do with this massive lobbying effort?

    Who is Peter accountable to? Everyone and no one at the same time. That’s why giving Metro Transit, CTIB or any other government agency that isn’t a city more money isn’t going to necessarily going to make our transit system better like we seem to think. It could! It certainly could. But the last 25 years worth of decisions show a mixed record of effectiveness that seems to be getting worse lately. There’s one Central Corridor for everything else we’ve done half-ass.

    How much money do we have to spend to get one more awesome project and 10 more sucky ones?

    How many billions of dollars will be spend on horrible road projects to be able to spend .50 on the dollar towards transit? Whatever check we write has to be tied to new rules and mechanisms on how roads and transit gets built. All of the current mechanisms seem pretty dysfunctional, so there’s not much worth saving.

    I’m all for road spending…just not endless widenings done to get maintenance moneys for towns that are already broke from over development. Let’s help the counties fund their maintenance problem without forcing them to justify lanes they don’t need just to get the money.

    Let’s help small towns undo the damage that State Highway widenings did to their main streets. Let’s do something productive with that road money that people all over the state want, but can’t do because some engineer tells them there’s no money. That’s what we should be trying to solve with MoveMN.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

      I’m not sure you’re right about the regional examples (like which one?), but I don’t disagree anything you’ve said except for the political calculation. Like I said in my first post, a lot depends on your degree of optimism (and how excited that transit map makes you). For me, I don’t think that the transportation system (or the US economy) is going to fall apart in the next 10 years. So most likely, the road lobby will get their money no matter what we do.

      And that map? Those grey lines on the map are the important ones to me personally. That’s a lot of bus improvements for cities and corridors that exist right now, and that everyone who takes transit knows full well are really underfunded. As for the more expensive projects, so much depends on the design details (and route choices). Despite the jurisdictional complexity, I hope we can affect that. The conversation about how to invest in transit is changing quickly, and I must have more hope than you do that we can steer it in the right direction. More and more people are understanding that a road-dependent city isn’t the future…

      But yeah, put me in charge of the state and I’ll hop on board your local government autonomy train. Let’s pass this and abolish state aid. Meanwhile, this bill is a lot better than sitting on our keyboards waiting for something that isn’t coming anytime soon.

      • Jim March 7, 2014 at 11:07 am #

        Bill – That map is beautiful in terms of its qualities of a map. The problem about the content of that map is that about 1/2 of the stations of those radial lines are in highly unproductive places that can’t financially support the investment those stations represent.

        You’ve expressed my biggest point already about the grey lines. They are the most important lines on the map and it’s very unfortunate more of those grey lines don’t have their own colors. That the Midtown Greenway doesn’t have a color is ludicrous. It wipes all the other lines that aren’t Hiawatha and Central off the map in terms of every metric. I know the service headways are the same given the line weight, but that’s not the point.

        That map represents pure political calculation and compromise, not high productive and sustaining transit service. And I don’t think anyone outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul should have to pay for any of those lines going from grey to color either, unless they want the color to continue into their place. The core cities don’t have that option to raise that revenue. That’s not a hard thing to allow.

        If the great people of Maplewood or Woodbury want a rail line, they should pay for it. Unfortunately their city and their county will never have enough of their own the money to pay for it because their development pattern isn’t productive enough to produce that kind of cash. I don’t want to subsidize their poor decisions about land use any more than they should subsize bad alignment choices in SW or Bottineau in Minneapolis.

        I understand the current politics and realize where this is all going. I’m just trying to point out that this compromise isn’t actually a compromise. A compromise would be to start chipping away at the rules that are making us poor and unable to improve things in a way that will last. I could sleep better knowing that if we pass a few billion worth of funding, that multiple millions would be spent in a new way showing us a new path. This isn’t going to change overnight and I’m not suggesting that this bill can do that. What we can do politically is start slipping in these things that can open the doors we need for the future. It would help if we hadn’t maxed out the credit card by then, but that’s for another day.

        Looking forward to a beer to talk about this further…stay tuned for my post on Monday, this has been a good warm up.

        • Jim March 7, 2014 at 11:43 am #

          Oh, I should say I’m all for the road lobby getting their money. Lots of roads needs lots of help. The total amount roads get and transit get doesn’t matter at all as a ratio of each other. If that’s how we are measuring success, then we’ll have a nice political theater for entertainment for a few months, but little more.

          If we change the strings attached to that road money, we’ll start back filling future need instead of digging the hole deeper. The way MoveMN is structured, there’s no acknowledgement a hole even exists. So difficult to be productive when the thing holding your future back isn’t even addressed.

          • Bill Lindeke
            Bill Lindeke March 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

            I agree with all your points. As you seem to be a long term thinker, one thought I had was that there’s nothing to prevent a SWLRT line from being “made productive” down the road. They don’t HAVE to be parking lots… if we’re going to fantasize about what a future Twin Citeis might look like, a LRT station area doesn’t have to stay unproductive, shopping malls can be retrofit, etc.

            Honestly, these are not the issues I care about. I’d rather focus on the places that are already walkable and have far more potential for density. But I’m saying it could be done, and a rail investment is a long-term investment that will likely pay off down the road even if it doesn’t right away.

            Maybe what we’re really arguing about is proper funding sources and economic price signals. I’d love to see a right-left coalition for sound transportation policy with some concrete proposals at the legislature. Who would sponsor those bills? I’m kinda serious with that question. Is anyone having conversations with pols about that? Or are we really really far away from political solutions, simply waiting around for the economic crisis… That reminds me of my left organizing days, waiting for the revolution that never came. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

            • Alex Cecchini
              Alex Cecchini March 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

              Wouldn’t it have to be a REALLY long time? A $10M parking ramp in Eden Prairie isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. MoveMN seems to admit that every lane is necessary and funds the maintenance of them for the next 20 (just guessing), along with building a few more (as we’re wont to do as a society). Won’t that keep businesses and malls who want/like their parking because people still need to get around by cars for 90% of destinations (instead of the 95% today), making it just as difficult to repair those areas with re-development? Put another way – we know that conventional metrics for roads prove their value. We build them, traffic counts increase. Some is induced demand from alternate modes or routes, some is induced demand from the new development, some is latent. The general population “knows” that building roads = good. But transit is continually viewed as some experiment, something to be distrusted. The Hiawatha/Blue Line has smashed expectations, and the Green Line likely will as well. But politicians (the ones making the decisions) can’t fathom transit working without park n rides.

              Like I said in an earlier tweet, if MoveMN’s proposal simply came with a shift in, or at the very least a brief *discussion* of land-use, I might be able to somewhat get behind it. Simply asking for more money without a candid talk about the link between transpo and land-use seems way off to me..

              • Bill Lindeke
                Bill Lindeke March 7, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

                Yes, a really long time. The anti-MoveMN argument seems to be OK with that kind of time horizon. So we should think about it… How will our transportation system look in 2044? Will most people still be driving? Will the Federal gov’t still be subsidizing much of anything? What will gas cost? Will we be thinking about changing parking ramps into housing? Will it be status quo for suburbia? What will the TC transit mode share be?

                I have ideas and hopes for 20+ years out, but the range of possibilities is vast. There are many such futures where a LRT to Eden Prairie might prove to be very valuable.

                (Note: I’m not even a huge fan of the project. I just think it’s a good compromise given the political limitations outlined above… or at least it would be if it went through Uptown and didn’t result in a freight rail fiasco contest.)

                As for your other point, I think the land use issue revolves around the power relationship between Met Council (land use) and CTIB (transportation), and you’re correct that this bill does not resolve that. It should. We’d have to find out from its authors the answers to that question…

              • Froggie March 7, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

                The real disconnect between transportation and land use is not at the state level….it’s at the county/local level. THAT’S the level where land use decisions are made. The state could provide guidance, of course, but they’re not the ones making the local decisions. To do so would effectively be micro-managing.

  6. Jeff Peltola March 7, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    Good to see interest in the topic of reforming our transit governance. (Do Sen Dibble and Rep Hornstein and/or staff read the stuff posted here?) The idea I threw out there of renaming CTIB (Counties Transit Improvement Board) CTB (Counties Transit Board), and putting it in charge of Metro Transit too, wouldn’t ideally solve all governance problems. At least it’d align more pieces of metro region policy/ taxing/ funding/ responsibility/ accountability in a single entity, one which has the crucial added benefit of being run by people with election certificates.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 7, 2014 at 10:11 am #

      There’s long been talk, as well, of having the Met Council be elected rather than appointed.

      How do they decide which County Commissioners get to be on CTIB? Do they have “terms”?

    • Jim March 7, 2014 at 11:35 am #

      Jeff – I’m not saying local municipal control is the end all answer, but it’s different enough way to get people thinking here. I’m offering to organize some people that would be interested in starting to work on a better answer…more on that soon. Would you be interested in sitting in on that conversation? Not a lot of people think governance is that interesting so I’m building bridges at any mention.

      Of the current entities that aren’t the state itself, none of them have enough power to do what they need and yet none are insignificant enough to dismiss without wholesale reconfiguration of where a given entities dollars would go if it didn’t exist. That’s why you can’t undo the piecemeal in a piecemeal fashion. All of these entities existed for a reason at the time they were created, I’m not saying they were bad ideas in their own context. They have just outlived their ability to be functional in a different context due to their narrow objective of their creation.

      • Jeff Peltola March 7, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

        I’m a good governance geek. E.g., I’m on Mpls Charter Cmsn. It’s amazing to say this, but Mpls itself is performing at least as well as any U.S., state, regional, local entity I’m familiar with. It’s quite a change from the bad ole days of the ’90’s. Btw, I did a year fellowship in U.S. Senate in 2009. Long story, but I’ve gone ultra-local since then. One thing led to another, and I founded a nonprofit called Public Works for Public Good (www.pwpg.org — there are a couple short videos there that summarize the body of work in my own community.) I can’t wait to apply the approach OUTSIDE my community (but commentary on swlrt badness has kept me busy lately). So, yes, I’d be glad to be part of conversations to improve our transit governance. The motto of the fledgling nonprofit is that our physical, institutional and civic infrastructure are interconnected.

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