“Think of the Hardworking Families”

ChildrenthinkWhat will they do? You hear the rhetoric every time transportation budgets are planned. It’s happening again now as the DFL and GOP wage intellectual war over the right path to fund roads, bridges, and transit across the state of Minnesota. Political gamesmanship ensues; current DFL Governor supports an opaque wholesale gasoline tax (and other increases) to support funding MnDOT, conservative group calls said governor out for formerly opposing raising taxes on behalf of MN families, GOP fires back with a no light rail promise (plus a plan that says nothing about additional transit funding of any kind, but that’s not here nor there for this post).

The gist of the argument goes like this: “People depend on their cars to get to work, drop the kids off at daycare, etc. A typical family drives 20,000 miles a year. At average vehicle fleet fuel efficiency and the proposed wholesale tax, families would spend an extra $120-250 a year on gasoline. Hardworking Minnesotans cannot take this hit to afford luxuries like bike lanes and trolleys.” Politicians further enable this, letting the general driver continue to be fairly ignorant of  road funding mechanisms, local expenditures on many roads, federal contributions, and the gas tax being constitutionally dedicated – leading many to believe they already pay the full cost of every inch of pavement.

At the same time, people like being told their problems are real. Bad roads. Congestion. Metro vs outstate funding equity cries. Politicians like being elected, and doing so means telling constituents they’ll deliver on fixing those issues. It’s how we end up with two parties (one of which operates under a fiscally-conservative mantra) coming up with these road funding plans:


Source: MinnPost

Note that both proposals include an increase in total transportation spending. I’m not going to say what the “right” dollar amount or proposal is, but it’s interesting that the party who wanted to give back the entirety of a state surplus is now proposing to spend that slush fund money on additional road spending. In other aspects of public policy (both state and national), conservatives typically argue for more privatization, less spending on frills, and entitlement reform, making it odd to see a proposal that not only doesn’t address a longer-term infrastructure plan but cross-subsidizes one economic activity (driving a personal or freight vehicle) with money from mostly unrelated sources.

So the question is: what would happen to hardworking Minnesotans if we really did increase the gas tax? But first!..

Background Thoughts

  1. About that congestion thing. The MSP metro area has it pretty good, with the average driver having access to the fifth (5th) most jobs of any major metro in the country (ahead of places with WAY more jobs like Houston, Dallas, Washington D.C., and Boston). I may have said this before, but that means our road network is pretty mature and we could coast into maintenance mode for a long time and remain commute-competitive.


    Source: University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies

  2. We need to question what luxury in transportation means. Take a look at the following series of images and tell me which seems the most luxurious to you:
    Luxury_TranspoThat car on the left is a 1999 Dodge Neon – pretty basic (no offense to any Neon owners), and it’s quite a bit more luxurious than the other options (this coming from a pro-bike/transit guy). Cars are great inventions – they’re like the future (I even own a Honda Odyssey just like that one!), but even a cheap car (with actual heat! and a dedicated seat! and a radio!) is a more attractive option to people than their alternatives.
  3. However, infrastructure (roads + sewers + etc to serve auto-oriented places) cost a good amount more than other modes. We should see catering to them as the luxury option, like Keurigs.

    Re-using this from my last post. (Source: VPTI)

    Re-using this from my last post. No fear. (Source: VPTI)

  4. A large portion of people who commute in MN drive relatively short distances. I talked specifically about the bikewalkbus gap in Minneapolis where 55% of workers live 5 miles or less from their job. Spot checks across the state show that on average 20-30% of people work in the same city they live. 47% of Hennepin County residents work within 10 miles of their home. Many other trips are even closer than that. Point being, there’s a lot of discretionary mode choices going on across Minnesota.
  5. The Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (SHIP) details out projects it would spend additional revenues on. While there is a lot of maintenance in there, I count a whole lot of dollars for capacity improvements. So, it’s realistic to imagine a scenario where the state raises revenues to maintain what it has, but doesn’t have enough to build additional capacity to relieve congestion (real or perceived) or handle regional population growth.

So What?

The appeal to “hardworking families” is powerful and emotional, but a lazy one since it assumes there are no alternatives to spending extra at the pump (or admits we have a transportation system and land use pattern that requires driving).  However, there really are options:

  • One member of a household bikes to work to save on gas (and new gas taxes). Even if it’s just from April to October (but year-round isn’t out of the question).
  • One member of a household takes the bus to work. (maybe suburban opt-outs like Southwest Regional Transit will run more local circulators)
  • Families or friends carpool more often
  • One or both members of a household shift what time they leave for work to avoid growing congestion
  • Parents opt out of buying (or helping) their 16-year old a car. They bike to school or take the bus (and are likely much safer and healthier as a result)
  • Rent out a basement bedroom to a stranger to offset costs
  • Pay the increase because driving is still more attractive or practical than options listed above

There are probably more options rational actors could come up with. If any of those things sounds super terrible, we should probably check our first-world privilege. Not to get too political here, but telling (mostly middle class) people they can continue driving, for every trip, for every member of the family, as a right of American existence, without paying more for the infrastructure that very act requires, seems like an entitlement we should prioritize way below other spending cuts that have been on the table.

I really do sympathize with folks who for whatever reason have no way around long commutes, or lower-income families for whom an extra couple hundred dollars a year really may push them over the financial edge. We have ways to soften those blows in the tax code. But promising more roads without charging users anything extra seems like bad policy.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.