Why You Should Oppose a Gas Tax Increase

There are many reasons to oppose Tim Walz’s proposed gas tax increase. When a DFL governor last tried to increase the gas tax in 2015, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns wrote two excellent pieces detailing all the ways that The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s road building policies are hurting Minnesota’s cities and towns, fueling suburbanization and bad development. I’m going to focus on two reasons to oppose new gas taxes. The first reason is fiscal and overlaps with Marohn a bit. The second and most important reason is environmental.

The Fiscal

Gas tax increases are sold to Minnesotans and, more broadly, to Americans on the idea that “our infrastructure is falling apart so we need more money to maintain it.” But, when you look more carefully, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is perpetually expanding our state’s road and bridge network. Instead of maintaining its existing system, a huge percentage of their budget is going to adding new bridges, new highways, and new highway lanes. After the I-35W Bridge collapsed in 2007, a Minneapolis Star Tribune 10-year review of MnDOT spending showed that “money for road and bridge construction went up every single year, no matter the state’s economic straits.”

“In 1997 the state spent $368 million on road and bridge construction. By 2007, it had soared to $760 million. Compare that with operation and maintenance of said roads and bridges, which stood at $213 million in 1997 and, by 2007, with a few dips and peaks, hit $218 million.” (August 12, 2007 Minneapolis Star Tribune A.19)

This was confirmed by a Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s report in 2008 which found that, despite MnDOT’s ‘Preservation First’ policy, “more than half of the spending since 2002 had been directed towards system expansion, not maintenance.”

Since I moved here in 2001, MnDOT added additional lanes to I-35E, I-35W, I-94, parts of Highways 62 and 52, and several other roadways. Many of these were huge projects, like the quarter billion dollar Cayuga project to widen I-35E. In addition, MnDOT added an entire second span to the Lafayette bridge and a brand new $700 million Stillwater Bridge for a road that carries far fewer cars than Snelling Avenue.

If you look carefully at their 2019 road construction project list, you see that many of the projects, particularly the most expensive ones involve adding new highway lanes, ramps and interchanges. There’s 6 miles of new lanes and interchange ramps on I-94 between Highway 241 and County Road 19 at a cost of $47.8 million. There’s $2.9 million to add a third lane and a 2-lane exit ramp on Highway 10 between I-35W and County road 96. There’s $59.5million to add 14 miles of new lanes on I-94 between Highways 25 and 24, or $95 million to add MnPass lanes at I-35W and Highway 10. There’s also $35.9 million to add MnPass lanes on I-35W between 43rd and 11th Avenues and on I-94 from 1st to Park Avenues. Many of these projects involve bridge replacements. Sometimes these are just “routine” maintenance but often, with widening projects, it’s because the existing bridges won’t hold the additional lanes, or bridges that cross the soon-to-be-widened road have abutments that are too close to the highway. So they need to be rebuilt as longer spans to cross the now wider highway below. This happened with some bridges as part of the I-35E Cayuga project. Just adding up the cost of the aforementioned projects, you get $241 million out of a total 2019 road construction budget of $1.125 billion …or close to 25% of the budget.

But there’s MORE! Many of the other, smaller projects on the list add or extend turn lanes, bypass lanes or newer, wider shoulders or parking lots. A $6.9 million project on Highway 210 or a $12.3 million project on Highway 10 would be examples of this. If you drill down a little further and actually look at some of the other 2019 projects on their individual project websites, you see that these involve adding new lanes, new ramps or new concrete and asphalt. I searched the project “Replace bridge on I-35W over Minnesota River from Black Dog Road in Burnsville to 106th Street in Bloomington” and found that it involves adding a northbound auxiliary truck lane for the entire stretch of the project. Adding lanes to bridges is super expensive, which helps explain this project’s 113.9 million dollar price tag on the construction list (though the project’s webpage says it will cost $127 million).

So what percentage of the agency’s budget is going to new construction as opposed to maintenance? Historically, according to the Star Tribune and Legislative Auditor, it’s been over half. I don’t have time to do an exhaustive analysis of each project on their current 2019 list, but it’s safe to say that at least a quarter of the spending is on new lanes and it may be much higher. This same process is also occurring with State-Aid money, where counties are frequently adding asphalt when they rebuild roads, intersections and sometimes even city streets. See my earlier piece on the Randolph and Lexington Avenue intersection rebuild.

If we get a gas tax increase, MnDOT has already published wish-lists or proposals for new expansion projects. These include their “Rethinking I-94” report, which proposes to add new MnPass lanes on I-94 through Saint Paul, a project that would require the replacement of many bridges and ramps that are currently too close to the existing highway to allow for expansion. This project would certainly cost several hundred million dollars.

The point of all this is that the state has more than enough money to maintain its roadway system. The problem is too much of that money is being diverted to new construction and expansion projects. In addition to diverting money away from system maintenance, all these expansion projects actually increase road maintenance budgets. Two additional MnPass lanes on I-94 through Saint Paul would add over 14 additional lane miles to the state’s road system. That’s 14 additional miles of concrete and asphalt that’ll have to be plowed, salted, have potholes fixed, and eventually be resurfaced or completely reconstructed. Every year we add dozens of new lane miles of asphalt and new bridges and other infrastructure to the system, all of which greatly increases maintenance needs and budgets. We can never adequately maintain a perpetually expanding system. At some point we either have to stop expanding it or, eventually, go bankrupt. The lesson of history is that “Preservation First” policies and current federal or state funding restrictions don’t work. MnDOT and the Highway Industrial Complex are constantly expanding monsters. The only way to keep them from gobbling up more land and more money is to squeeze or cut off their funding.

The Environmental

The bigger, much more important reason to oppose a gas tax increase is environmental. Climate Change is a screamingly urgent problem that we must confront if we wish to survive. Transportation is now one of the leading sources of carbon emissions in the US and the world. In the USA, “transportation” means “cars”, the most energy intensive of all transportation modes. As I’ve just detailed, year after year, MnDOT keeps widening roads and adding new bridges, interchanges, ramps, shoulders, parking lots and lane miles to the state highway system. As a state and a nation, we simply cannot address carbon emissions and climate change if we are perpetually expanding our highway system.

Even if you believe that, in twenty years, we’ll all be riding in magic driverless cars powered by limitless green energy, as much as 46% of the greenhouse gas and pollution that a car produces in its lifetime occurs during its manufacture and disposal. The aluminum and steel and other metals in a car have to be mined and forged. The plastics in its interior, body, tires and other components require petroleum. Electric car batteries require rare-earth metals like Lithium and are more complex to recycle. So emission reductions of these vehicles are not as great as many people think.

Then the roads, bridges and highways themselves produce carbon. The concrete industry alone accounts for over 5% of all carbon emissions. Asphalt and concrete also absorb solar heat producing “Heat Islands” that contribute to warming. Increasing amounts of pavement exacerbate floods in places like Houston and even Minnesota, as glaciers melt and (in some places) snow and rainfall increase. Add the carbon emissions from asphalt and steel and the energy required to transport, spread, build with, and maintain them …and you realize that tail pipe emissions are just the tip of the melting global warming iceberg.

If we want to survive as a planet and a species, we can’t keep paving the planet. I can’t take Tim Walz or Democrats seriously when they say they want to address climate change, yet they also want to increase a gas tax which, inevitably, will go to expanding roadways. If the gas tax could be flexibly spent on public transit, bike and pedestrian improvements, or brownfield remediation (like in Europe), I might consider it. It would then become a “sin tax” (like the tax on cigarettes or opiate medications), whose proceeds could go to offset the negative effects of driving. But, in Minnesota, the gas tax is constitutionally dedicated to highways. There’s a tiny bit of “revenue leakage” that goes to bicycle and pedestrian projects via State-Aid money but the vast majority is used for automobile pavement and infrastructure. Until that changes or controls are put on MnDOT to prevent it from expanding, I can’t in good conscience support a gas tax increase. What Minnesota and America really need is a paving moratorium. I’m not alone in this. In addition to Marohn’s call for “No New Roads”, Smart Growth America and others have consistently pushed to have climate change considered as part of infrastructure projects with an eye towards slowing or stopping road building.

So, if you believe climate change is real and something that we should address as a state and a nation, I urge you to email or call your legislators and tell them to oppose any proposed gas tax increase. If it passes, we’ll just get more asphalt, more runoff, more damage to our cities and towns, and more global warming.

 

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73 Responses to Why You Should Oppose a Gas Tax Increase

  1. Brian April 9, 2019 at 9:17 am #

    One correction per https://unionparkdc.org/sites/default/files/Rethinking%20I94%20Qs%20for%20website%202.pdf the potential new MNPass lanes would be “converting an existing lane, adding a center running lane, or a combination of both” not widening the highway between the downtowns which would require replacing bridges.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nate Hood April 9, 2019 at 10:45 am #

      It would be widening a highway. The document plainly states, “Adding a MnPASS lane, rather than using an existing lane, would likely widen the roadway footprint.” (see: 3.C)

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

        MnDOT could implement MnPass lanes quickly if all they decided to do was take an existing lane. Honestly, that would be a great policy idea IMO. You constrain free driving while incentivizing an alternative.

        • Nathaniel M Hood
          Nate Hood April 9, 2019 at 12:47 pm #

          Yes, that scenario would be an improvement over current conditions. But, I get the feeling they are looking at some type of expansion. I’ve heard that St. Paul has taken the position of “new expansion” in city limits – which is good.

          • Bill Lindeke
            Bill Lindeke April 10, 2019 at 9:00 pm #

            Maybe try using a few more words here to explain what this link means before anyone clicks on it…

  2. Mark April 9, 2019 at 9:22 am #

    The downside to continuing cheap gas policies is that it incentivizes people to buy gas guzzling SUVs. Then manufacturers see the sales increase and higher profit margins and just stop making smaller more fuel efficient vehicles that are safer for bikes & pedestrians. So I’m all for an increase, if the costs are allocated appropriately to actual road maintenance and increased investment in public transportation.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller April 9, 2019 at 9:39 am #

      Right. Seems like the problem is not a higher gas tax, which would increases the disincentive to drive more mile and/or bigger vehicles, but what we do with the revenue gained. We need it both to be more expensive to drive and not to keep expanding roads.

  3. AJ April 9, 2019 at 10:09 am #

    As you say, the proposed gas tax increase would be more helpful if it could be flexibly spent on public transit, bike and pedestrian improvements. However, I think it would also be wise to find alternative revenue sources to fund these things in the long-term — it might be convenient now, but in the long-term it would further exacerbate our reliance on fossil fuels for tax revenue.

    • Brian April 9, 2019 at 11:40 am #

      The constitution will need to be amended to make this change. I’ve never been to a legislative hearing, but I will be there to oppose amending the constitution to allow other uses of the gas tax.

  4. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nate Hood April 9, 2019 at 10:54 am #

    You’re not “re-thinking” I-94 unless you’re thinking about removing it.

    If Your Only Tool Is a Hammer Then Every Problem Looks Like a Nail. This is the situation we’re in with “Re-Thinking I-94”. We are asking the very people who created the problem to fix it using the same tools they’ve always used.

    We need a radical new direction on I-94. This means evaluating a Highways to Boulevard option: https://www.cnu.org/our-projects/highways-boulevards

    • Brian April 9, 2019 at 11:38 am #

      How many lanes would this boulevard have to handle 100,000+ Vehicles per day? There is no convenient east/west alternative to I-94.

      • Nathaniel M Hood
        Nate Hood April 9, 2019 at 11:49 am #

        Traffic behaves less like a liquid with a constant volume and more like a gas which expands or contracts to fill its container. This is what economists refer to as induced demand, and it goes both ways—reduce the system’s capacity, and you can just as easily un-induce that demand for driving trips –

        Recommended read: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2019/1/31/car-pocalypse-not-now-why-predicted-gridlock-in-seattle-was-again-a-no-show

        • Brian April 9, 2019 at 12:21 pm #

          The Seattle project was only a month or so. People will make temporary changes to avoid traffic, but most won’t make those changes forever.

          The reduced lanes on 35W for construction didn’t cause traffic to disappear. People who live near 35W have been complaining for almost a year about all the extra traffic in their neighborhoods.

          Commutes have to get pretty bad before most workers will change jobs to be closer to home. The replacement of I-94 with a 35 MPH boulevard full of traffic lights will mean no more express buses from east of Minneapolis. It is hardly an express bus when it takes twice as long to make the trip. (Lot of people still ride the 94 bus as it takes twice as long to ride the green line.

          • Bill Lindeke
            Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 12:41 pm #

            Or, maybe they will make those changes forever. There are lots of examples of traffic being reduced from freeway (or parking) removal, and staying that way.

            • Brian April 9, 2019 at 1:16 pm #

              Do people just stop going to work when highways are removed?

              • Bill Lindeke
                Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

                Ask Seattle or Vancouver or San Francicso or Copenhagen or Seoul. P sure there are still jobs there

              • Jeb Rach
                Jeb Rach April 9, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

                No, but they do adjust their habits. They find an alternate route, they may drive to a park-and-ride, or long-term they may move or find a different job.

                If anything, I’d expect to see more impacts from a month-long change than from a permanent change. A month seems long enough that it wouldn’t be easily accommodated by temporary telecommuting, but short enough that people wouldn’t get into the rhythm of new habits yet.

                There’s also nothing saying that we couldn’t build separated express lanes for buses with signal priority, while keeping a boulevard for general traffic.

    • jack April 9, 2019 at 1:41 pm #

      Thanks for that great link!

    • Charlie April 15, 2019 at 10:29 pm #

      Do you know that Cities get MSAS money from the gas tax? That is money that funds the rebuilding (not widening) of existing city arterials. A majority of Saint Paul’s streets are getting older faster than they are being rebuilt which is one of the reasons our local streets are plagued with potholes. We NEED an increase in gas tax to relieve the empty city coffers so that our average pci goes up not down.

  5. Brian April 9, 2019 at 11:11 am #

    Both the 35W and 35E MNPass projects include(d) a badly needed total rebuild of the interstate. The Cayuga bridge was identified as one of the worst bridges in Minnesota after the 35W bridge collapse.

    The pavement on 35W between hwy 10 and Lexington is horrible. There are some nasty potholes southbound. The interstate badly needs a rebuild.

    • Tim P April 9, 2019 at 11:19 am #

      But that’s what they do. They’ll wait until a bridge needs a reconstruction and use that opportunity to widen it. Even the Dale bridge this happened on. They patted themselves on the back because they added a wider sidewalk but really added a lane is each direction. Kinda shameful how they did that.

      • Brian April 9, 2019 at 11:43 am #

        The best time to widen a highway or bridge is when the highway or bridge is being rebuilt. It costs less than going back to do it later.

        • Mark April 9, 2019 at 12:19 pm #

          The best time to widen a highway is usually never..

          • Brian April 9, 2019 at 12:25 pm #

            How much fuel is wasted and extra emissions caused as highways get slower and slower due to worsening congestion?

            The bus I was on yesterday certainly wasn’t getting very good MPG stuck in congestion at 5 MPH.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 12:42 pm #

              MnPASS lanes or bringing back the dedicated 94 bus lane would fix that.

              • Brian April 9, 2019 at 1:13 pm #

                MNPass lanes on a slow speed boulevard that replaces I-94? Buses would still be much slower with stoplights and a far lower speed limit. You can do signal preemption, but that doesn’t increase the speed limit.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 12:42 pm #

          The best time to remove a highway is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

          • Brian April 9, 2019 at 1:08 pm #

            Are you okay with no groceries or goods getting delivered without any highways in the state? I know my job would be gone pretty quick with no highways to deliver the product we sell.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 1:32 pm #

              Grocery deliveries are fine with me. It’s subsidized single-passenger car travel I have a problem with.

              • Brian April 9, 2019 at 2:11 pm #

                You have made it clear you want highways removed. How do groceries get across the state to the store without any highways? Do we build a bunch more railroad tracks to replace trucking?

                • Bill Lindeke
                  Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 4:12 pm #

                  Highways are fine if they are priced in a socially responsible way and not built in ways that erode the livliehoods and opportunities for people near them.

    • Dan Choma April 10, 2019 at 7:00 am #

      The interstate did not need to be widened, and the surrounding “cheap land” they seized to build it was formerly home to hard working Americans who were largely against widening the interstate. The people who pay the most for this are the largely less affluent community members who now have to live with the noise and pollution of a 5 lane interstate literally in their back yard. This only exasperated income/health equality: and our income inequality in MN is already pretty freakin bad.

  6. Brian April 9, 2019 at 1:06 pm #

    I guess we should eliminate the gas tax and all street/road/highway funding. Everything can just go back to gravel with no maintenance.

    We’ll go back to living like the 1800s with everyone owning a horse. You folks would love that. We would lose most of our fresh groceries as everything would need to come in via wagons.

    • Matty Lang
      Matty Lang April 9, 2019 at 1:22 pm #

      Well, that escalated quickly.

      • Julie Kosbab April 9, 2019 at 8:35 pm #

        I like horses. They’re also arguably less hard on the climate.

    • Jeb Rach
      Jeb Rach April 9, 2019 at 1:39 pm #

      I guess our only two options are absolutely no maintenance or roads whatsoever or continuing to expand highways indefinitely. No other options exist. Simply stopping expansion of our highways isn’t a possible middle ground.

      • Brian April 9, 2019 at 2:40 pm #

        MNDOT doesn’t have enough money to maintain the roads we have now. MNDOT could easily spend every penny of a new gas tax on just repairs without any new lanes.

        I drive 1-1/2 miles a day on 35W to get to my park and ride. I hit about a dozen large potholes in that 1-1/2 miles. I swear some of the potholes could swallow a compact car. When I was riding in the bus this morning some parts of 35W felt like we might as well have been on a gravel road. I drove to Willmar on MN 23 last week and parts of that highway are pretty rough.

        A layer of asphalt on top of a failing base is not the right way to fix a road. MNDOT should have done concrete repairs on I-94 last year instead of put asphalt on top that will need replacement every five to seven years. There are many rural tow lane highways that should be torn up and rebuilt from the ground up. The original highway was built from concrete 50+ years ago and MNDOT keeps putting fresh asphalt on top that cracks right away due to the base shifting.

        It will cost at least $1 billion just to rebuild I-94 between the downtowns without any expansion. Both the 35W/494 and 35W/694 interchanges need replacement at a cost of $400 million to $500 million. The Lowrey tunnel will need a total rebuild at some point.

        Hwy 65 from Blaine to East Bethel needs a total rebuild. There are other highways all over the Twin Cities that need to be rebuilt.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 4:13 pm #

          Did you read Andy’s article? He argues that MnDOT does have enough money at present, but is misallocating it.

          • Brian April 9, 2019 at 4:38 pm #

            The amount of money spent on expansion doesn’t even come close to covering everything in my list. Just the $1 billion rebuild of I-94 is as much or more than has been spent on expansion in recent years.

            How many billion would it cost to completely rebuild the 50% or more of rural state highways that need it?

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke April 9, 2019 at 5:02 pm #

              Great question. Let’s see some data if you have it…

              • Brian April 9, 2019 at 8:18 pm #

                I couldn’t find any specific data for how much it costs to build a road in Minnesota. Florida DOT says it costs $2.2 million per mile for a rural 2 lane highway. Caltrans says it is about $800,000 per lane mile for rehabilitation. An industry association states $2 million to $3 million per mile for a 2 lane highway.

                The federal bureau of transportation statistics states Minnesota had 11,811 miles of state owned roads in 2013.

                I am just making a wild guess that 50% of those roads need complete rehab and assuming all two lane roads. If MNDOT could get the cost per mile down to $1 million it would still be $5 billion. I don’t think that includes the cost of any bridges.

                Various Star Tribune articles have mentioned costs from MNDOT around $1.2 billion to rebuild I-94 between the downtown. MNDOT wants to fix the right hand lane to eliminate lane drops at exits. Maybe MNDOT can get it down to $1 billion if they leave the lane drops. Honestly, they would get a lot of pressure to eliminate the lane drops for a $1 billion plus project.

      • Charlie April 16, 2019 at 7:15 am #

        No ….right now we have Light rail/ Rapid bus lines/ regular bus lines/metro mobility/of course then regular streets and freeways, and lastly we have bike lanes. Wow that seems like we are not just doing one thing and are employing many different types of options. And that is what we need to continue to do. We need ALL the forms of transport to work together and give people options. These different forms of transportation are not competing with one another they are complementing each other.

  7. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

    Your criticisms of MnDOT’s spending are spot on. But your quarrel is with those spending priorities and not with the mechanisms that fund them.

    The primary benefit of the gas tax is that it makes driving more expensive, which should result in less driving. Those gains would be erased if capacity were expanded, which is why capacity expansions should be opposed. But it doesn’t follow that the gas tax hike is, itself, bad.

    • Jeffrey Klein April 9, 2019 at 1:57 pm #

      It may if expansion is inevitable, which I think a case could be made that it is.

      Gas tax should be paired with a strict no new roads policy and some kind of progressive redistribution. If that’s the case I would say it should be very, very high.

      But given a hypothetical where I had to choose between maintenance only, or 50/50 expansion of roads vs. transit and bike infrastructure – which would be a much, much better deal than we’ve gotten in the past – I think it could be argued that the climate impact of doing nothing is actually better.

    • Tim April 10, 2019 at 9:09 am #

      It comes down to politics. A gas tax increase will have a hard enough time getting passed as it is. The road expansion sweetens the pot and makes it more palatable — yes, you’ll pay more at the pump, but in exchange you’ll get more roads and fewer potholes.

      A gas tax with no capacity expansion would be DOA, not just from Republican opposition, but rural and suburban DFL objections too.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller April 10, 2019 at 10:19 am #

        I don’t really understand the mindset that finds “more roads” appealing in the abstract, although I think you’re right that it exists. Seems like we should have all of the roads we need by now.

        That said, the belief that we can expand existing roads to ease congestion, despite being probably wrong, is ubiquitous.

        • Tim April 10, 2019 at 12:41 pm #

          Yeah, probably not literally “more roads” where there aren’t any now, but expansion of current ones (plus more bridges).

          And yeah, we can’t build our way out of congestion, and I suspect at least some of the legislators who want the expansion know this.

  8. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina Scheel April 9, 2019 at 2:21 pm #

    I agree with Alex. The spending priorities are the problem more so than increasing the gas tax per se.

    And it may be irrational, but I hate letting people buy their way into the MNPass lanes. It feels like a continuation of the trend of people expecting to buy access. They buy their way through airport security and buy their way out of waiting in lines at events and attractions. Why shouldn’t they buy their way through the college admissions process?

    • Mark April 9, 2019 at 3:02 pm #

      FWIW I “buy my way through airport security” and have for several years now. From a cost-benefit perspective it’s worth it to me as a business traveler to spend more time being productive and not having to worry about long security lines. That said I have no plans to buy my children’s way into college, so I’m only a slightly horrible person.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary April 9, 2019 at 4:29 pm #

      Pricing on the MnPASS lanes is designed to keep transit in the lane moving, but using the excess capacity. This makes the best use of those lanes, and takes some cars out of the general lanes.

      I am a MnPASS user. Personally, I look at it at paying about what an appropriate congestion price amount would be for all the lanes, and MnDOT and the legislature are just failing to charge for 80% of them.

      • Serafina Scheel
        Serafina Scheel April 9, 2019 at 5:23 pm #

        Heh. To be fair, I know my response is emotional rather than rational. I don’t fault individuals for partaking in MNPass or PreCheck, but rather the system that sets it up like that and normalizes paying to skip the lines. Waiting one’s turn is part of the human experience. What’s next? An express lane for voting? Skip the lines at the cheese curd stand at the State Fair?

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary April 10, 2019 at 12:58 pm #

        Both — I would like to move faster, and I justify the expense on the idea that we all ought to be paying.

        Of course, if the entire roadway were congestion-priced, we would all be moving faster. I don’t think it’s some great egalitarian thing for us all to sit in congestion for free when the congestion exists, in large part, because the road is free.

    • Monte Castleman April 9, 2019 at 6:39 pm #

      I hate letting people buy their way into MnPass lanes. Right now the rich can just buy their way in while the poor have to put up with waiting in general traffic. Maybe if the rich weren’t allowed to buy their way into the lanes, there’s be enough uproar from people with influence to get some badly needed capacity expansion available to everyone.

    • Mike B April 9, 2019 at 11:02 pm #

      I would love to switch to a gross weight based taxation on vehicles. Have a custom vehicle? Need to pay to get a certified weight entered for the VIN. The damage to asphalt goes up roughly by the power of four based on weight. This is based on the research available and matches observation of pot holes on roads with the heavy semitrailer usage. Want to drive an SUV which is double the weight? Pay your share of the damage with 16 times higher registration fees.

  9. Brendan Jordan April 9, 2019 at 4:59 pm #

    The inclusion of electric vehicles in this argument is confusing. I think the author is mostly expressing skepticism regarding autonomous vehicles, but EVs are thrown under the proverbial bus for good measure and without merit.

    First – the author is cherry-picking studies to make EVs them look worse than they are. That study is from 2011!

    EV emissions are highly dependent on the electric grid mix. In Xcel’s service territory (largest utility in MN), an EV achieves a 63% GHG reduction per mile relative to a similar gasoline car. This will be 75% by 2030 according to Xcel’s resource plans, and about 95% lower once Xcel achieves its stated goal of using 100% clean energy. And yes, this includes emissions related to the manufacturing of EVs. Furthermore, those manufacturing emissions can also be reduced by decarbonizing process energy in the industrial supply chain. Manufacturing emissions are indeed slightly higher than those for gasoline cars today, but are a drop in the bucket compared to emissions from burning gasoline over the life of a car. A more updated analysis that uses current information on the electric grid mix is linked below.

    http://www.driveelectricmn.org/update-electric-vehicles-provide-even-greater-ghg-reductions-in-2017-and-beyond/

    If you look at the countries that are most successful in those other areas, they are also more successful at promoting EVs. I haven’t seen a serious climate mitigation assessment anywhere that assumes that vehicle trips can be reduced to zero in any meaningful timeframe. Even in the Netherlands, 47% of trips are by car, and that does not include freight and delivery vehicles. And notably, the author is arguing that we stop expanding our road system, but is not arguing we eliminate it or reduce it – which certainly implies we will continue to have vehicle trips occurring long into the future. Lower emission vehicles are part of the solution.

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer April 10, 2019 at 3:26 am #

      Brendan, I’m not saying that electric vehicles aren’t better than gas ones but I’m countering a kind of mass delusion that, if we all drive electric vehicles we can somehow keep building new highways and everything will be fine. If we don’t reduce “Vehicle Miles Traveled” then whatever savings in GHGs we get from electric cars will be overwhelmed by increasing miles driven and GHGs produced by the sheer increases in the amount of pavement and infrastructure (see the Guardian article I link to in the piece). I did a whole post on this issue a while back which my comment is sort of referencing. See–
      https://streets.mn/2018/09/07/driverless-cars-and-the-cult-of-technology/
      Also, the study you site, if you go to its source, only applies to Minnesota and assumes that Minnesota vehicles are getting their gas from “Tar Sands” oil which is much more GHG producing than oil extracted in other ways. See–
      https://www.betterenergy.org/blog/electric-vehicles-provide-large-ghg-reduction-minnesota/
      So it’s GHG savings rates are going to be much higher than average (the study itself says non-tar-sands gas produces 9% less GHG). The 2011 study I cited, I chose because the electric car industry itself commissioned it and it went into more detail based on makes, models, hybrids, etc. Again, I’m not saying that electric vehicles aren’t better than gas for GHG emissions, I’m saying that, even if we all drove them , we’d still go to global warming hell unless we somehow decrease motor vehicle use and reduce “vehicle miles traveled.” We’re not gonna do that if we keep building new highways and highway lanes and keep designing our cities and suburbs around cars. Also, I don’t think there’s enough lithium in existence to convert the over one billion motor vehicles (and growing) currently operating in the world.

  10. Tom Basgen
    Tom Basgen April 9, 2019 at 6:40 pm #

    Hi there, Moderator here. We got a lively discussion here, something we strive to foster here at streets.mn, but I would like it to be observed that stereotyping comments will be deleted and unhelpful, combative posting is an excellent way to have your arguments lose their persuasiveness. Continued combative posting may also be handled by our friendly moderator staff offering participants the mercy of having their commenting privileges revoked.

    Happy chatting.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller April 10, 2019 at 10:35 am #

      When you’re willing to hide “keep subsidizing the suburbs” behind “reallocating transportation-related tax money.”

      Also, citing a study saying that people adjust to keep commute times about the same is a weird way to make an argument against density.

      As is citing studies that show our transit is bad also a strange way to argue against improving transit.

  11. Steve S April 10, 2019 at 10:07 am #

    Lithium is not an example of a rare-earth metal as the author mentioned. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to recycle, but I feel compelled to defend the periodic table:)

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer April 10, 2019 at 3:58 pm #

      Thank you. My bad. I nearly failed high school chemistry. I meant that commercially viable amounts of the metal on earth were “rare”. From Wikipedia– “According to the Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium, “Lithium is a comparatively rare element, although it is found in many rocks and some brines, but always in very low concentrations. There are a fairly large number of both lithium mineral and brine deposits but only comparatively few of them are of actual or potential commercial value. Many are very small, others are too low in grade.”[51]”

      …seems like the largest known reserves are in Chile and Bolivia …but they are trying to figure out other places and ways to extract it.

  12. GlowBoy April 11, 2019 at 1:50 pm #

    So the basic argument is to oppose gas tax increases because that will only encourage MnDOT with road expansions? Personally, I support (massive) gas tax increases to discourage driving and excessive fuel consumption, but I oppose road expansions – for the exact same reasons.

    As for EVs, I don’t think anyone is arguing we’re going to see a wholesale conversion of gas cars to full electric, so the argument is approaching strawman territory. For a whole bunch of reasons (grid capacity, buyer resistance, cost of charging stations, lithium and rare earth supplies) that is not going to happen.There is no one solution to our energy and GHG problems: it will take a whole bunch of solutions combined, and converting some part of our fleet to EV may be one of them.

    All else equal, switching from gas power to an EV of the same size does result in a net GHG reduction. And switching to a smaller EV – which has often been the case due to battery size limitations – makes an even bigger savings. That may change if we end up with a bunch of electric Tahoes running around. But all in all, electric motors (even when you take into account charging and conversion losses) are simply vastly more efficient than gasoline engines using today’s technology.

    The other day I did a round trip in my Leaf from Mpls to Stillwater, averaging 5.0 mi/kWh – that’s 165 MPGe, easily twice the 70-80 mpg that I could have gotten in a Prius on the same route. Unfortunately Minnesota’s brutally expensive electricity – versus ridiculously cheap gas – means that I’m not saving much on energy cost versus a Prius, but it is still cheaper to run than just about any other car.

    • Monte Castleman April 11, 2019 at 4:50 pm #

      Myself and a lot of people are arguing that there will be a whole-scale change to electric. If they improve them to be acceptable to people the economics vs ICE are just going to be too compelling.

      I think we are going to have a bunch of electric Tahoes running around. Tiny sedans don’t fit the needs of most Americans (to the point car manufacturers are dropping sedan models right and left). Until we have electric vehicles that match the size and range of gasoline vehicles they won’t be accepted. Right now a Tesla 3 is about the best that we can do, but there’s incentive to improve and adapt the technology to vehicles more likely to be accepted.

      I’m not convinced lithium supply is going to be an issue. In 1920 they predicted peak oil production could come as soon as three years. If we need a commodity they generally find enough of it, or else adapt to some different commodity.

      If the TaaS rental model comes to pass, that’s when you’re going to see a large change in average vehicle sizes since taking a one person car for the commute from the suburbs to downtown doesn’t hinder you’re ability to do the weekly grocery shopping trip, take the kids to swimming lessons, take home IKEA furniture on Friday night and tow the boat up to the cabin the next day. Just summon the exact size vehicle you need for the trip at hand rather than owning a vehicle big enough to cover all possible trips that you make.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller April 12, 2019 at 9:12 am #

        If TaaS is ever going to be a thing (and if it is, I think it’s a long way out), I don’t see much reason for the fleet to be all one type of vehicle, much less always a large SUV. If the thinking is people buy mammoth SUVs for perceived safety or occasional max capacity needs, a variety of TaaS vehicles would allow people to match vehicle type to need and automation is supposed to handle safety.

        Why wouldn’t you prefer a small, private vehicle for trips alone, a pickup for hauling and a roomy whatever for family trips?

        • Monte Castleman April 12, 2019 at 9:23 am #

          That’s exactly what I’m suggesting with TaaS, that we’ll see an average reduction in vehicle size because it will be just as easy, rather than nearly impossible, to use the vehicle sized appropriately for the trip at hand.

          My feeling is that practical electrical cars (big enough and with enough range) are going to come before TaaS, so we’re going to see a period of private ownership of manually driven electric Tahoes.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller April 12, 2019 at 2:45 pm #

            Sorry, apparently I didn’t read very well.

      • Andrew Evans April 12, 2019 at 12:28 pm #

        Monte Castleman

        I’m willing to bet that generally stand alone ICE engines are going to be really phased out in 5 years and maybe a thing of the past in 10 years. We’ve had hybred sports cars for a while now, formula 1 is racing an electric series, pretty sure isle of man has a competitive electric motorcycle class, and the luxury car makers are putting a lot of effort into electric.

        Batteries make a few more improvements, get within 500 or 600 miles, have a reasonable charging period, and we’re off to the races with EV. At that point too, someone could buy a larger SUV style car, maybe take the hit with electric mileage, but it may be better than a gas engine.

        Also improvements for solar are coming that will make it more attractive for home owners, as well as battery backup systems to keep some of that extra power. At home, our appliances, at least to me, appear to be using less power. Led bulbs vs traditional, tube TV or LCD vs plasma. It wouldn’t be a leap to apply some of those savings to charge up a car – especially if it’s going to be used to commute less than 30 miles a day.

        Which is why I made the comment about the gas tax in the main part of the comment sections. I think that to some extent it’s unfair to those rural poor families and that it’s getting outdated by newer cars.

  13. Andrew Evans April 12, 2019 at 12:20 pm #

    I wish we could do a gas tax that’s based off of region. Higher in the metro area and less in outstate rural counties. That way we won’t widen the political divide between the two pretty distinct areas. Not sure it would be possible, but it’s just a thought.

    The last thing we want to do is have yellow vest style protests where those in the outstate areas would voice their frustration with big city policies that don’t take rural needs into consideration.

    That said FWIW I’m somewhat against the tax. With EV’s coming up, along with higher mileage vehicles, I feel it’s starting to be the time to shift to a new source of funding that would keep pace with the type of vehicles that would be using the roads. As with my regional comment, I’m not as much of a wonk to really know how or where the new funding would come from.

    • Monte Castleman April 13, 2019 at 8:43 pm #

      It’s not just and urban vs rural thing. There would be a lot of people in yellow vests in the Twin Cities protesting a higher gas tax too. Especially if it’s not used for badly needed capacity expansion.

      • Jeffrey Klein April 14, 2019 at 9:48 am #

        Where does capacity expansion end for you? It’s been outpacing population growth for decades; it monumentally surpasses any other country; it hasn’t ended congestion; and we are clearly struggling to afford it. So when do you stop?

  14. roger April 13, 2019 at 4:21 pm #

    A better tax would be one on those people who drive with excess property on public land…. empty car seats. The tax should be 1 cent per mile for each empty seat in a car. So if you drive 30 miles with 3 empty seats, you should have to pay a 90 cent tax

  15. Paul Nelson April 13, 2019 at 5:29 pm #

    I have been attempting to understand and sort the funding and user fee issue for some time. What Andy clearly shows is that the fuel tax revenue is being used to build new motorway infra, rather than maintaining what has been built. However, what I find disturbing is that what is being built new is motorway-only roads and infra. There appears to be a policy/attitude that fuel tax money can only be used to build motorway only roads. The problem I see is that we have a lot of motorway-only roads that can not be used for anything else but cars, trucks and buses. The perennial outcome is that we continue to build for the car. I think also that there is a problem with terminology and nomenclature. Any road that is built and called a “Highway” should be a road that you and everyone else can walk and pedal drive a bicycle on, first by design policy before building for motor vehicles. Somehow our overall road funding system seems not to fit a purpose of public policy for all, people first and for walk/bike first by design.

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