Minnesota Transportation Bill Basics
The Republican-controlled House has passed a transportation bill that uses General Fund money to support billions in new road funding, cuts transit, and ignores walking and biking.
The DFL-controlled Senate has passed a transportation bill that uses a gas tax increase to support billions in new road funding, a metro-area sales tax increase to fund building out on the Twin Cities transit system, and puts $56 million a year to walking and biking.
A “conference committee” made up of five legislators from each of the House and Senate starts meeting Tuesday, May 5 to work out details and try to bring the very different bills together.
But the high-level pieces of a transportation bill (will there be a gas tax? will there be a sales tax for transit/bike/walk?) will likely be part of a “global deal” and most directly connected to the Tax bill. The primary negotiators for that deal will be DFL Governor Mark Dayton, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt. The Governor has stated his support for a gas tax and sales tax package while Bakk and Daudt will work to reflect the will of the legislators from their party and their willingness to compromise on different elements.
This quote from Senator Bakk in MPR provides one insight into what might be to come: “He [Speaker Daudt] said, ‘Well, I have to have a tax bill.’ I said I really want to get a transportation bill. And he said a second time, ‘Well, I have to have a tax bill,'” Bakk recounted. “And I said I’m willing to consider matching you dollar for dollar. For every dollar in gas tax money he’s willing to give me in that bill, I’m willing to give him a dollar in tax relief.”
The session ends May 18 (unless there is a special session). A transportation bill is not required to avoid a government shutdown, so there is some possibility that no agreement will be reached, although all sides have made transportation (manifest in very different bills) a very public priority/promise, so there will be pressure to get it done. Will it be done with your priorities in mind? Well, that will largely depend on whether you let your ideas be known! We all make a difference–voice your thoughts.
Why I Support Move MN
The narrative that Move MN is bad increased in streets.mn circles back when there were actually discussions about the state transportation bill (there hasn’t been a post on this topic for many weeks). Some call it bombastic names like the “infrastructure cult,” while others have simply gone from actively supporting transit, bike, walk funding (and the transportation bill) two years ago to now standing on the sidelines as doubts creep in their mind (is it really worth supporting transit/bike/walk if it means more funding for road expansion?).
There are very legitimate questions about transportation funding. I think that it is very important to have messengers like Strong Towns explaining the challenges that come with misplaced transportation funding. I don’t agree with it all, but the fundamentals of the Strong Towns message are important.
But the simple reality is that the vast majority of Minnesotans drive for nearly all of their trips and want improved roads. Do I think that is sustainable (from many perspectives)? No, but it is the current reality. The vast majority of people and leaders across the state are not yet remotely cued into the Strong Towns message (I certainly am glad that more people are).
That reality manifests itself politically at the Capitol. A transit/bike/walk-only bill is impossible. Why would a legislator from Greater Minnesota vote for a bill that raises taxes in the metro (where their constituents go and spend money from time to time) to support projects that are only in the metro? Sure, you and I know that a strong Twin Cities is critical for the economy of the state, but does that really matter much to the immediate day-to-day life of someone in Greater Minnesota? Does it help a legislator in Greater Minnesota politically?
If you want more transit lines, better bus service, greatly expanded bike routes, and more pedestrian improvements, the reality is that a multi-modal state transportation bill that includes significant funding for roads is the only way that is going to happen.
Some have said it is better to have no new funding for transit, biking, and walking rather than feeding our fundamentally flawed system and that we should just let it slowly die with less funding. That is a dystopian view of a race to the bottom and certainly not a place I want to live. It would also never result in great transit, biking, and walking because you can guarantee that as long as the vast majority of people drive for nearly every trip (which won’t change no matter what for decades) that the first things that get cut with no new funding are transit, biking, and walking.
We see that in the transportation bill that passed the House, which they have even named the “Road and Bridge Act of 2015” just to reiterate how focused on driving they are. That bill spends a bunch of new funding on roads by shifting funding from the General Fund (or potentially, more specifically, by eliminating MinnesotaCare) and by shifting funding from transit to roads (Metro Transit says, under the bill, they would have to cut bus service by 17 percent in the next two years and more in the future). It completely ignores biking and walking save for $500,000 for Safe Routes to School.
Move MN is for more funding for roads, but it has also been stridently for more funding for transit and for the first-ever dedicated state funding for walking and biking. The Coalition is strongly committed to a multi-modal bill that invests in all areas and I really appreciate that, and I personally must see significant dedicated walk/bike and transit funding in the bill to support it.
I fundamentally think that Move MN’s position would be a positive direction for the state. It would fix roads and bridges that need fixing. It would build out the Twin Cities transit system. It would be huge for walking and biking. It also would allow for some road expansion projects that I’m not too wild about, but the reality is that each of those projects has a big constituency. Often that constituency isn’t too wild/doesn’t care about the transit/bike/walk projects in my area. That’s compromise. That is fixing our transportation system in a way that serves all parts of the state. That is how positive things get done. That is Move MN.
Now, of course, not everyone in Move MN is committed to all aspects of the bill and there is fear that some might cut and run if they get their piece, but I think many are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen. I think it is also fair to say that Move MN has maybe focused too much on a roads and bridges message (and not as much on transit, bike, walk). I do think that is largely strategic (they need Greater Minnesota Republicans to pass a bill), but it has been challenging for some of us, especially on the walking and biking side. So, we have (with the leadership of the American Heart Association) continued to get positive bike/walk messages out outside of Move MN. But I was at Move MN’s rally a couple week’s back and nearly everyone talked about transit, biking, and walking.
When transit, bike, walk advocates sit on the sidelines or quietly turn to a no-compromise view that any new road money is bad, it increases the chances that a bill like the House version will pass with less transit, biking, and walking. There is significant momentum for road funding across the state. Roads have become the focus of the transportation conversations whereas two years ago it was much more balanced. Part of that is that the road advocates are not deterred while some transit, bike, walk advocates are not as strong and SWLRT is working through problems that have hurt transit support.
As the final discussions on the transportation bill happen, I hope you will stand up for what you want to see in it–even if that isn’t reflected in what you’ve heard. It is important to have your voice.