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Legislative Session Wrap-up 2023

Minnesota just finished a historic legislative session! Let’s hear from leading transportation advocates what we accomplished.

Episode summary

00:00 | Intro
00:48 | How we got here
17:06 | Funding for transit
29:01 | New passenger rail
41:33 | Biking safety laws, routes, and funding
58:21 | Looking forward to next year’s session
59:17 | Outro

Further resources


Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.

This episode was hosted, edited, and transcribed by Ian R Buck, with a news segment by Tim Marino. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at podcast@streets.mn.


Brian: [00:00:00] And so this will directly benefit freight infrastructure, too, because freight trains will be able to go faster now.

Ian: [00:00:05] But but you’re still going to have passenger rail going like, “on your left!”

Brian: [00:00:09] Yeah, exactly. Right. You know, zooming by.

Ian: [00:00:15] Welcome to the Streets.mn Podcast, the show where we are celebrating a most triumphant time at the state legislature. People are rightfully calling 2023 a historic session, with the DFL trifecta making progressive moves in all kinds of arenas. We’re going to focus on transportation and land use today by chatting with representatives from some of the biggest advocacy groups in the state. I’m your host, Ian R Buck. Let’s get right into it.

Ian: [00:00:48] Yeah. First here, we’re going to talk to Peter Wagenius, who is the legislative and political director of the Sierra Club North Star chapter. Sierra Club was very, very involved and honestly, a very pivotal piece of of making sure that a lot of this happened this session, because this session would not have happened if we hadn’t elected a lot of the right people to get this DFL trifecta. So, Peter, can you talk a little bit about like like how we got here? What was the story like right before we started this session?

Peter: [00:01:25] Yeah, thanks for asking the question that way. I mean, in some ways we’ve been building towards this for 20 years from a policy standpoint, but politically, what’s happened just in the last two election cycles I think has been really critical. Um, Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have been a lot more aggressive in campaigning for the candidates who are going to support the environment, really take action on the climate crisis, um, but also getting them to take really specific commitments. We had been screening people, screening candidates for office, asking them a specific question about will you support a three quarter cent metro wide sales tax? Because we were anticipating that was where the conversation was going to lead to, even though-

Ian: [00:02:15] Wow, you really called that shot!

Peter: [00:02:17] Oh, yeah. Well, and frankly, that was the that was the first win of the getting this ultimate win was really the from a series of of 5 or 6 victories leading to the final victory. But the first one was just getting our key coalition united around the same proposal. And I sound like old man Wagenius when I say this, but you know, I wanted to never let people forget the story of the lost decade. Ten years ago, we had a trifecta. It was huge progress made on education, health care and other issues. And transportation got nothing. Nothing. And I know that was on Frank Hornstein’s mind our House chair. I know it was on Senator Dibble’s mind, our Senate chair, and we wanted to let nobody ever forget about it. We had a trifecta ten years ago and we didn’t get anything done on transportation.

Ian: [00:03:08] The two of them were there ten years ago, right? Yes.

Peter: [00:03:11] Scott was the chair at the time and Frank was the policy chair. But they were both in the legislature. They had both been in the legislature for a while. They knew the size of the opportunity. And one of the key lessons out of that that we wanted to let not let people forget is that it was taken down by two things, really, the controversy around the gas tax and the fact that the advocates were not consistently united around the same proposal. And so we talked to our candidates and said, hey, you know, over the last couple of election cycles, hey, we want you to commit to a three quarter cent metro wide sales tax as the funding source. B, we want you to promise to us that you’re going to make that happen with or without road funding. Obviously it’s easier with road funding because then the environmental lobby and the labor lobby can all be together around the same proposal and that’s ultimately what happened. That’s great, but we wanted to make sure they knew. Learning that lesson from ten years ago, it was the gas tax that took us down and it was having the advocacy community not united in particular. There was a fight between the counties who wanted to control the transit money and the Met Council, who wanted to control the transit money. And what we were saying from the word go is, no, no, no, we are not getting pulled into that. We are we are going to understand this. We have two years to fight over money. We have a couple of months to excuse me, we have two years to fight over policy. We have two years to fight over policy. We only got a couple of months to seize this opportunity to grab the money.

Peter: [00:04:43] We need a united proposal. And frankly, some folks struggled to say, should it be the sales tax? You know, because it’s not a perfect revenue stream. We acknowledge that. It’s you know, people would note that it’s a regressive tax. But we were helping people understand and building a coalition around around this understanding, you know, what’s the most regressive possible outcome? The status quo. Right. What’s regressive, never building a transit system because you never get on board a proposal that will actually work. And when we’ve already been in line this long, when the Senate passed a half cent metro wide sales tax ten years ago and the House passed it four years ago and two years ago, you’re teed up. Don’t change horses. You know, when you’re that close to winning, just grab the thing and recognize that in the in its total effects. It’s an incredibly progressive win because there are thousands of people, thousands and thousands of people who are not going to have to buy a second car or a car at all, saving them 9 to $10,000 a year. That’s incredibly progressive, even if. The revenue stream is is not perfect. The other key strategic thing about this is it’s really easy to target a sales tax to a particular geography. That’s the other thing that you talk to people around the country. If you try to tax rural areas to pay for metro transit, don’t hold your breath. You will never win. It will never happen. And so we wanted to make this bill a bill that was really easy for greater Minnesota Democrats, because the reason we have the majority is because we have all these votes in the metro area, plus Rochester, Duluth, Saint Cloud, Moorhead.

Ian: [00:06:24] And don’t forget Cook County.

Peter: [00:06:25] Yeah. And Cook County and Winona. That’s that’s how we get there. So there was no way to pass this bill without making it a really easy vote for greater Minnesota Democrats to support. And having a sales tax only in the metro area was unquestionably the right call. I think think that’s proven now, but that was not a given. And I think building this bigger coalition Move Minnesota and Sierra Club, we’re always going to be on board this, but I think we built a bigger coalition than we’ve ever built before. Plus, as I pointed out to folks, we’ve already been screening candidates on the basis of supporting this. So we’re starting ahead of the game. If we’re starting ahead of the game where legislators have already been asked and they’ve already answered, we will support this. You got to go with that.

Ian: [00:07:11] Let’s let’s talk again about how we got to a DFL trifecta that unlocked all of this for us because it wasn’t like transportation was not the issue that voters were thinking about when they elected most of these people.

Peter: [00:07:28] But climate was. Climate was, it has been increasing in importance for voters. Salience is is sometimes the technical term that campaigners use. I mean, environment is always scored really well as do you support the environment or not? You know, it’s been one of the highest scoring things. But the question is, is that going to be the vote that actually switches you from voting for this candidate? Candidate A or candidate B? Salience has drastically increased for climate. And of course, the the unforced error by the Republicans in choosing to alienate young voters, women through their successful campaign to end Roe versus Wade was also extremely powerful. Powerful in in that it led to our candidates winning, but it also created a bond, I think, between core progressive candidates and candidates in swing districts. In the past, I think people have talked about like, you got to persuade them with different message messages. And what we experienced is that you could talk about climate, you could talk about reproductive freedom, you could put them together in the same message, and it would work in the DFL core and it would work in swing districts. We here’s how we merged and I’m looking at a lit piece.

Peter: [00:08:50] I realize this is radio, so I’m just going to I’m just going to here’s one of the candidates we talked about. “Judy Seeberger for State Senate. Judy Seeberger will protect our freedoms to make our own reproductive choices, breathe clean air and drink clean water and have a livable climate.” We united climate as a message and reproductive choice as a message. Under the Freedom Banner. You see what we did there that plays everywhere. And it really touched on what a wide swath of voters were recognizing, which was the radicalism of the other side. And when our side taking the advice from Anat Shenker-Osorio, when our side is the side for freedom, freedom to make our own reproductive choices, freedom to breathe clean air and clean water, freedom to have a livable climate, I think that was absolutely crucial to winning, particularly these these suburban races that I think put us over the edge. What I just described for one candidate is something that Sierra Club did for a bunch of our candidates. And we encouraged other environmental organizations to do the same.

Ian: [00:09:55] What a prescient move. Honestly, like.

Peter: [00:09:59] I would I would love to be able to claim that that that I came up with this all on my own. But really, it was it was the coalition work of Sierra Club being at tables with 100% Campaign and Take Action Minnesota and Move Minnesota and also with pro-choice organizations and listening to people like Anat Shenker-Osorio and kind of like putting it all together and saying, well, how does this apply to a Minnesota legislative race? And is it really different on these key things? Is it really different between a swing district and a and a base district and realizing, no, it’s not. But it was really important in those in those suburban swing districts. And and I would make this point and you know forgive me for sounding a little bit like an evangelist, but these legislators did right by us in a whole bunch of ways for choice, for climate, for a bunch of other issues. And it’s now time for us to do right by them. When you think about these these ideological centrists who and I use that term deliberately, who just love to say overreach, overreach, overreach. If if the progressive candidates ever do anything worthwhile, that’s dangerous because it’s overreach. What a great message. Thinking about that horrible analysis. You know, don’t actually help people. Don’t actually address the climate or protect their freedoms because people might call it overreach. I would love to prove them wrong in the next election. I would love everybody who’s listening to this podcast, everybody who’s excited about all the things we’re doing for climate and not just this bill.

Peter: [00:11:33] We passed three big climate bills this year. I would love it if people said, You know what, I’m going to go door knock or Lucy Rehm and Brad Tabke and Matt Norris and all the people who brought us this victory because they did right by us. We got to do right by them. And it would send a message to all those people who say, don’t use government to to improve people’s lives. It would send a great message that they could be this assertive on behalf of our freedoms and not pay a price. And it’s not overreach. It’s them doing what they said they were going to do. So I hope we will all do right by them because they did right by us. Another key thing about something that happened this year is so Sierra Club and Move Minnesota have been working on this for years. Isaiah has been a partner for years. Isaiah put big resources into this in a way that they hadn’t in the past because they could see the opportunity and a lot of credit is due to them. But I also have to mention 100% Campaign. A beautiful thing happened to us during the session, which is not only did the 100% bill pass, it passed in early February, which means these wonderful folks who were mobilized on behalf of the 100% clean energy bill, clean energy by 2040, which is the first of our Big Three environmental wins, those folks were able to redeploy Chris Conry and Aurora Vautrin and all of the folks that they mobilized.

Peter: [00:12:55] I guarantee we got a bigger, better bill, bigger in terms of dollars for transit, better in terms of policy because the coalition was bigger. So hats off to Jamie Long and everybody who was able and Sierra Club was working on that bill too, but passing it early and being able to redeploy all that energy and staff time was a big part of being able to then pass these other two climate bills the Energy Omnibus, Energy and Environment Bill and the Omnibus transportation bill. So the first victory was getting everybody on board the same proposal, big coalition. The second victory was getting the the House and Senate to both offer a big number, three quarters cent metro wide sales tax in both the House and the Senate bill. But then what happened? The Senate Tax Committee took Senator Dibble’s bill and they shrunk it way down on both the road side and on the transit side. Functionally cut it in half in terms of new transit dollars from three quarters cent to a half cent, forgetting that like the first quarter cent is just there to eliminate the deficit. So. So what did we do? We argued for going back up to the three quarters cent for the Senate to match the House bill. And how did we do that? We went to suburban legislators and we said, You know why we need more money? We need more money because we want to serve your community.

Peter: [00:14:15] We want your community to be included. And if we don’t have the bigger number, we know what’s going to happen. Your community is the one that’s going to get left out because suburban transit is more expensive. That’s not an accusation. I’m just we’re just talking math here. Suburban transit, You have to drive more miles using more driver hours to pick up fewer passengers who are further apart. It’s just math. It’s harder. It’s more expensive to do. Does that mean we don’t do it? No. It means we raise the money necessary to make sure all of these communities get served. Also, for a lot of those communities, the way they’re going to take a long trip to a destination further away is going to be with highway BRT, not arterial BRT. Well, highway BRT is more expensive. So we walked to legislator after legislator. I showed them the 2014 Highway BRT study and said, you know, your community is on this list. They’re not going to get their project unless we do the amount of funding, that funding that allows us to pay for transit in the core and the more expensive transit, you know, in the in the outer parts of the district or the metro area or at least where the Democrats represent. But that ended up becoming coming in really handy because not only did we have to get the money back up to the House amount in the Senate bill, the original Senate amount, but there was also an attack on our funding from the collar counties.

Peter: [00:15:41] The collar counties are the seven metro counties, minus Hennepin and Ramsey. The collar counties though, said they already got one sixth of the revenue, 17% in the original House and Senate bills as they came off the floor. And when they saw that money and they realized, oh, we got one sixth of the money, instead of getting 17%, let’s get 40%. And we Sierra Club, Move MN, 100%, Isaiah, we were able to push back on that attack and and go back to those legislators and say, remember the reason we need more money. We need more money to be able to serve your districts, your suburban districts to be to be able to bring projects like the Orange Line and, you know, to facilitate developments like Burnsville, Heart of the City, the last stop on the orange line to your district. That was what protected that money for transit. So it was it was 83% of the money goes to transit, 17% to the counties. They wanted to increase their their carve out from 17% to 40%. Oh, my God, That would have been a disaster. And we were able to push back and keep it at 83% of the money goes to to transit because every part of the region, at least every part of the region represented by a Democrat, we wanted to make sure they could see themselves in this future.

Ian: [00:17:06] All right. So now we have Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move Minnesota, here to talk about mostly about transit stuff, but, you know, transportation in general. So yeah, Sam, like what what what were some of the highlights of things that we accomplished this session?

Sam: [00:17:26] Well, first, thanks for having me on. I’m thrilled to be here. Streets.mn rules. We ended up with serious long term dedicated funding for transit and I keep saying “long term dedicated funding” because that is really what allows a transit agency to both plan long term. Know that they’ve got money coming in the door so they can plan long term and also to operate the system that they’re building out. So that’s really important. And we won big. There’s a 0.75% sales tax in the metro area. It’s going to be starting up to fund transit, and that’s going to bring in about 450 plus million dollars every year to support transit in the metro area. There’s also money to support transit, increased transit funding across the state through a couple other mechanisms. So it’s not just the the Twin Cities region, but across the state is going to see that funding. We saw a new transit ambassador program created and kind of expanded. We saw a free fare pilot get passed. We saw some working groups around figuring out how to make our local buses move faster. And then we saw a kind of a shift in how we think about what our transportation should be with some limitations on highway capacity expansion, ensuring that capacity expansion and interchange projects are consistent with our vehicle miles traveled targets and our greenhouse gas reduction targets in the state of Minnesota.

Sam: [00:18:58] 5/6 of the sales tax receipts go to transit and then one sixth goes to what they call “roads” on the spreadsheet. But that roads money, that one sixth, which is about just shy of $100 million a year, that gets divvied up between the counties in the metro area, according to a formula in a new section of the law. And that formula is to divvy out the money that goes to counties in the following way. So this isn’t the only source of funds that follows this formula. 41.5% of the funds have to be spent on active transportation. 41.5% of the funds can be spent on roads and bridges, but cannot be spent on capacity expansion, and the remaining 17% can be used for transit or for some kind of like related related types of funding mitigation measures, which could be biking and walking as well for this broader greenhouse gas, vehicle miles traveled program we talked about earlier. So my understanding is that that formula applies to the to that sales tax money, and that appears to be the way it’s written, but it’s not written quite as clearly as one would maybe do now that you sort of look at it. Anyway, that’s that’s the setup there.

Ian: [00:20:30] Sam, it’s just it’s just law. Like how hard could it be?

Sam: [00:20:34] I mean, I can read you the actual language here. I was going back and forth on this over the weekend, actually. The question is whether whether the funds that are are getting distributed to the counties are being counted as being received under subdivision five, if there’s a difference between received and distributed. So if you want to go into the weeds, I’m there.

Ian: [00:21:00] [laughter] Oh, no, that sounds like a headache that I don’t want. When we were talking about the you know, at the time proposed $0.01 sales tax in the metro area for, for transit stuff. Um, you know the, like the stuff, the stuff that we were talking about it allowing us to do was basically like all of my hopes and dreams, right? Like everything I could ever want for, for transit was included in the pitch for like a $0.01 sales tax. So we got a 75 cent sales tax or sorry, 0.75 cent sales tax. Uh, how many of those things do we anticipate, like having unlocked like, are we going to have transit ambassador programs? Are we going to have, um, you know, like, like how much of, like, like are we going to be rapidly expanding the amount of arterial BRT lines? Like what? What do you think is going to be next for, for Metro Transit?

Sam: [00:21:57] Yeah. I mean, the 0.75% sales tax is a total game changer. I mean, to put this in kind of a scale perspective, Metro Transit’s current budget is somewhere in the $500 million a year range, but they’re running $130 million annual deficit.

Ian: [00:22:18] So realistically, we’re looking at a $630 million like budget, actually.

Sam: [00:22:26] Yeah, sort of. But so so this then closes that budget deficit and then leaves an additional $300 million or so in the black.

Ian: [00:22:38] All right!

Sam: [00:22:38] So that’s a lot of money. It’s not doubling the budget, but that’s a big jump. And that’s awesome. I mean, that means we can build out a bus rapid transit system extremely quickly, even if we weren’t pulling federal money in. But we are pulling federal money in. We do have the ability to pull bonding money in. There were a couple of bus rapid transit lines actually funded with an additional $72 million of bonding money in the capital investment bill this year. So that’s not the only money that’s going towards transit. We can use that to fund those capital projects. And then all the kinds of operational things that I think you and I have talked about before, the kinds of things like having a transit ambassador program, being able to hire more drivers. Yes, we’ve been in a driver shortage, but we’re seeing that trend turn around. And that’s not sort of like a permanent forever state of being, even though it has felt like a long 18 months. Um, and we are in a position of really being able to increase frequency to, you know, 5 or 10 minutes because we can hire those drivers, we can buy more buses for existing lines. We are able to contemplate like for real looking at free or reduced fares, significant different fare pass programs or just eliminating them altogether. We’re able to think about investing in the ongoing upkeep of bus lanes, expansion of the system as a whole, new highway, bus, rapid transit projects. I mean, this is a real game changer. The real cap on what we can do is the long term operating cap and to have an additional $300 million to use for operations in the long term is huge.

Ian: [00:24:26] Yeah. God. I’m so stoked!

Sam: [00:24:32] Yeah. Yeah. It’s going to be awesome.

Ian: [00:24:35] Like, I know. I know that this isn’t going to be like an overnight thing, but, like, I feel like this is the turning point where in a few years, I’m going to not be hearing, like, ordinary people saying to me like, “Yeah, I would love to live somewhere where like, it’s possible to live without a car, you know?” And like and as somebody who is living in the Twin Cities without a car, like, you know, I look at people who say that and I’m like, “Well, I mean, it is possible,” but like, I feel like I feel like that perception like this, this may be the turning point of being able to change that perception for people in the Twin Cities.

Sam: [00:25:18] Absolutely. I mean, we need I will say we need the right leadership to at Metro Transit and the Met Council to make this happen. Right. I mean, we need somebody who has the reaction that you just had to look at this money and say, I am stoked to make like extraordinary, extraordinary change and just go for it. I mean, we saw like the streetscape of New York City (I used to live in New York City) saw the streetscape in New York City just transform and like 3 to 5 years because they had a transportation commissioner who was just like all in on changing the streets to make them more bikeable and closing down like major intersections and turning them into plazas. And it just it just changed the city just changed, you know, rolling out Citi Bike. And so if we have somebody who says, you know, we are going to go hard on trying to get bus lanes signal priority and like a whole bunch of bus rapid transit projects and hiring more drivers however we possibly can over the next five years, we are going to see some like a wildly different system.

Ian: [00:26:31] We had some developments on like gas taxes, right? Uh, not only was it increased, but also like it has been changed so that it’s. It’s, uh, indexed to inflation, right?

Sam: [00:26:44] That’s correct. Yep.

Ian: [00:26:46] And did we did we change like, what gas tax revenue can be used for? Because that’s been one of our big frustrations is that it’s only allowed to be used for like, you know, roads and bridges.

Sam: [00:26:57] It did not get changed. It is constitutionally dedicated to the highway user tax distribution fund, and that fund can only be used for, quote, highway purposes, end quote. So if a fair minded attorney (like me) would argue that-

Ian: [00:27:17] [laughter] [dubiously] Uh huh.

Sam: [00:27:22] That “highway purposes” include lots of things like the buses that run on highways, like, you know, pedestrian bridges and bicycle ways going across the highways, the expanding that to the full highway corridor and so forth. But, you know, that still is open to agency interpretation and it is still restricted in the Constitution. I think there’s just so many game changing parts of this bill. And I you know, I hope that the listeners of this podcast at the end of this episode kind of take a step back and absorb the totality of it all, because it’s really easy to say like, “Oh cool, there’s this capacity expansion thing and cool, there’s all this funding for transit and there’s an e-bike tax credit and all of these different things,” but then you start to think about how that all works together. Like our highways are not expanding the way they were, and people have all these other options, including e-bikes and standard active transportation, biking, walking. So many more transit options, I mean we could be looking at a totally different state really soon because of how all of these policies and funding streams work together.

Ian: [00:28:29] Yeah, there you go. That’s that’s the takeaway.

Sam: [00:28:33] That’s the takeaway, man.

Ian: [00:28:36] I love it. Well, Sam, I’m looking forward to being able to see you on the other side in this in this wonderful new state that we’re building.

Sam: [00:28:46] I know, I know. Stay involved, everybody. It’s going to take work to get it all done.

Ian: [00:28:51] All right. Thanks for joining us, Sam.

Sam: [00:28:53] Cool. Ian, great to see you.

Ian: [00:29:01] All right. So we are here with Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, which is our _premier_ train advocacy group in the state.

Brian: [00:29:12] Well, thank you for that, Ian.

Ian: [00:29:14] To talk about what what gains we got in the last legislative session for passenger rail. We had Brian on almost a year ago, it was summer of 2022 to talk about what things looked like at that time. And we’ve had a few developments. Yes. So some very exciting ones.

Brian: [00:29:34] Very exciting developments. So thank you for that, Ian. Yes, this was a very historic transportation bill. It not only addressed probably every area of the state, but it addressed almost every mode of transportation within the state. And for the first time, recognizing that transportation is short of funding by over $1 billion a year. There were some new fees and things implemented to close that shortfall. So it was a very historic bill. But in in terms of passenger rail, it was probably the most investment this state has made since the late 70s, actually. And what happened in this legislative session was that the transportation bill fully funds the Northern Lights Express train from the Twin Cities to Duluth, provides $194 million, which is the full state match to match federal money to construct the line for 90 mile an hour running.

Ian: [00:30:37] Which we needed in order to unlock the federal funding, right?

Brian: [00:30:40] Correct. That’s correct. Yep. So so the state of Minnesota is paying for 20% of it. The infrastructure jobs bill pays for 80% of it. Okay. For all the construction. So that’ll include new stations, grade crossings, 90 mile an hour running, which is, you know, faster than conventional passenger train speeds of 79 miles an hour. But MnDOT really felt, and I think rightly so, that they wanted the service to be competitive. The the, you know, the schedule to be competitive with drive times. Right. So that’s one very historic major piece that was passed.

Ian: [00:31:18] And I think that’s the one that got the most attention. You know, it did. It’s a new project, so it’s very high profile.

Brian: [00:31:26] Yeah, that’s exactly right. And the the state of Minnesota funded that service from 1975 to 1985. So that’s the last time trains ran on that route. Before Amtrak, of course, was a very popular route. There were three different railroads that offered passenger service from the Twin Cities to Duluth. So it is a very well established route, very well established service, and I think it’s greatly needed.

Ian: [00:31:50] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we’re recording this on Memorial Day and I just came back from Grand Marais where, like, you know, I had to take a folding bike with me up there because, you know, you can’t take full size bikes on the bus that goes up to Duluth. Sure. And so, yeah, so like this just unlocks like so many, like the variety of types of trips that you can take. Exactly. You know, like not just between Saint Paul or Minneapolis and Duluth, but like, you know, it unlocks a lot more along the North shore as well.

Brian: [00:32:23] Exactly.

Ian: [00:32:24] Which is where everybody in Minnesota loves to go and like, you know, spend their vacations.

Brian: [00:32:28] That’s right. Exactly. And what was interesting to me is, especially this year, there were a lot of people of your generation testifying about the fact that without a car, it is really difficult to travel in this state. It’s not convenient or it’s really expensive, and it’s just very difficult to get around without a car.

Ian: [00:32:50] So you say that they’re from my generation, but I looked at all those college students who showed up to testify together, and I’m like, Oh my God, you’re so young.

Brian: [00:32:58] [laughter] Well, I’m kind of lumping you in with a generation. But but it’s true. And they they gave a lot of very poignant examples about, you know, the fact that college students can’t rent cars. Bus schedules are typically inconvenient and slow. Short hop air service has been cut back, as well as bus service and short hop air service is very expensive. And so it’s just extremely difficult to get around the state. And so there was just a lot of really good testimony and it opened my eyes to the fact that once again, if you have money and or you have a car, this state serves you really well. If you don’t have one of those two things, it’s really difficult. To get around. So that’s one piece. The second piece out of the three is that the state of Minnesota provided full operational funding, meaning the, the annual cost to run the second Twin Cities to Chicago train.

Ian: [00:34:01] Okay. Which was already like, it was already on its way to opening.

Brian: [00:34:05] Well, this was the last piece because last session, the state of Minnesota provided $10 million to unlock federal money to provide the infrastructure upgrades along the route. Gotcha. What they didn’t do last session was provide the operational support. So this operational money also leverages a federal grant to provide the operating costs with the Farebox won’t recover. Gotcha. But the Farebox recovery ratio for a service like this is actually very high, typically ranging, and they range in corridors around the country. But, you know, they typically range anywhere from 60 to 80%. Okay. So, you know, it’s it’s it’s, you know, a very that’s also a very needed service. And models have shown that it will be very well patronized.

Ian: [00:34:53] Yeah. And so you say that they funded operating budget but is that like the operating budget for X number of years?

Brian: [00:35:02] For two years, yes. So for the next transportation budget, the state of Minnesota will need to come up with with more money. But the what what has been shown over time is that once ridership increases, as the service becomes established and more well known is that that farebox recovery goes even higher. So the state support typically decreases. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Wisconsin with the Chicago to Milwaukee Hiawatha service. You know, the state subsidies over time have lessened just because ridership keeps increasing.

Ian: [00:35:35] And the popularity of the service goes up exactly like it’s less politically feasible to just drop that operational funding.

Brian: [00:35:43] Yep, exactly right. And then the third piece, which we truly welcome is a study of the Saint Paul to Fargo-Moorhead passenger rail corridor. So in that will be recommendations about what to do with the Northstar commuter rail service between here in Big Lake.

Ian: [00:36:05] Possibly between here in Saint Cloud depending on how well that study goes.

Brian: [00:36:10] Right, right, exactly. And so but it will also look at the needs for long distance passenger rail, like extending the second Twin Cities Chicago train to Fargo-Moorhead on a daytime schedule on the current Empire builder route through Saint Cloud, which is what we’ve long advocated for. And there’s a lot of support in all the communities up and down that line. Little Falls, Wadena, Saint Cloud, Bemidji, Brainerd, you know, they’re all very supportive of daytime passenger service on that corridor.

Ian: [00:36:41] That’s very interesting that you listed all those communities because like, like Staples in Detroit, Lakes are the only ones that actually have stations in between Saint Cloud and and Fargo, correct?

Brian: [00:36:52] That’s correct. And they’re very supportive as well.

Ian: [00:36:54] Yes. Well, I mean, they directly benefit, but like. Yeah, but even even, you know. Yeah, I suppose it makes it a lot easier if you want to drive from Brainerd to like Staples. Yeah. Or whatever, whichever one is the closest one.

Brian: [00:37:07] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Probably Staples or, or Detroit Lakes. Yeah. But so those three pieces of legislation got passed within the transportation bill, which is hugely transformative for the state because it means that hundreds of thousands of people are literally going to benefit from new rail passenger service. And since 1985, we’ve only had Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which goes from Chicago through the state of Minnesota, you know, in the dark hours of the night. Yeah, in the morning. Yeah. On to Chicago, on to Seattle and Portland. So this is really a game changer for people who cannot drive or fly or don’t want to. Yeah. So we’re very excited about this. The second Twin Cities Chicago train could begin rolling as early as this fall. The Twin Cities to Duluth service could be in a range once federal funding is secured and all that’s put in place and all the mechanisms start to roll could be 3 to 5 years from now. Just just because it takes that long to, you know, construct the new grade crossings, the stations upgrade the signaling, all of those things.

Ian: [00:38:20] Right, right, right. Yeah.

Brian: [00:38:21] The rolling stock.

Ian: [00:38:23] Because that’s mostly on existing freight rail.

Brian: [00:38:28] Yes.

Ian: [00:38:28] But some of it’s going to need to be upgraded in order to accommodate 90 mile an hour.

Brian: [00:38:33] Yep. New sidings. You know, there’s MnDOT’s proposing four round trips a day. So, you know, typically freight trains on that line right now move at about 50 miles an hour. So you’re talking about passenger trains that are going almost twice that fast. Right. And so this will directly benefit benefit freight infrastructure, too, because freight trains will be able to go faster now. But. Yeah.

Ian: [00:38:59] But you’re still going to have passenger. Drill going, like “on your left”

Brian: [00:39:01] Yeah, exactly right. You know, zooming by so. So, yeah, there’s going to be, you know, new sidings. The rail infrastructure itself is going to need to be upgraded for that running. Um, so, so yeah, it’ll, it’ll, it’ll take a few years but it’s coming.

Ian: [00:39:19] Yeah. And let’s see if I remember some of the other things we talked about last year. Um, we haven’t made any progress on like Twin Cities through Kansas City, like the Dan Patch line. We didn’t, we didn’t get that gag order repealed, did we?

Brian: [00:39:35] Um, that was in the bill. I think it got removed, though. But MnDOT has contacted Iowa DOT and Missouri DOT. And because MnDOT is interested in that route, they feel that it’s a very viable route. We think obviously that it’s a very viable route and there’s a lot of support along the communities in Minnesota for that service right. Um, but Missouri Dot is very supportive of, of that service. I’m not sure what response they got from Iowa dot um, the governor there is not exactly enthusiastic about rail passenger service let me just put it that way. Yeah, but but MnDOT has made some overtures, so there has been incremental progress. And this year the state passenger rail plan is going to be updated and they’ve asked for our input. And so we’re going to lobby heavily, heavily that that route get pushed. Yeah, pretty high in the in the ranking order. So yeah, we have our we have our work cut out for us. But we’re again, very, very thankful to the chairs of the Senate and House Transportation Committee for their vision, their leadership, their their, you know, sticktoitiveness to keep passenger rail in the bills when they face some some odds and doing that. And we’re just extremely grateful to them for their vision and leadership. And we’re we’re thanking them right now for that. And so and thank you to all of the Minnesotans who on our behalf and Move Minnesota’s behalf, called legislators and say, you know, keep transportation funding for transit passenger rail because it makes a difference and it will. Yeah.

Ian: [00:41:21] All aboard!

Brian: [00:41:21] All aboard!

Ian: [00:41:23] Brian, thanks for coming on.

Brian: [00:41:24] Thank you, Ian. Appreciate the opportunity.

Ian: [00:41:33] A couple. A couple of months ago, we had Dorian Grilley from the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota on to talk about the legislative agenda that they were going to be pursuing. And let’s find out how much of that actually happened, how much took place. I think we have a lot more to talk about now than if we had done this episode, you know, like last year or the year before. Dorian, how did this go?

Dorian: [00:42:00] Well, gee, we’re so excited here at BikeMN. Pretty much everything we asked the legislature for in 2023 has become law. Our asks were included in the historic omnibus transportation policy and funding bill that passed the legislature late Sunday on May 21st, and Governor Walz signed it into law on May 24th.

Ian: [00:42:26] Nice. So the the big piece that we were going for was the Bill Dooley bicycle Safety Act. Um, how much of that remained intact? I know that there were a couple of, like small things that got changed.

Dorian: [00:42:40] Correct. Um, we asked for $35 million a year for active transportation and safe routes to school and got 30. So when you get 30 of 35 million actually 29 of of 35 million when you ask, um, it’s it’s really a big win. And just about everything that we ask for policy wise, including the Idaho stop, was included. So it also included a rebate of up to $1,500 on the purchase of a new e-bike and qualifying accessories.

Ian: [00:43:27] Nice. Yeah. I’ve seen a few people online like kind of lamenting the fact that the Idaho stop that we got doesn’t include stoplights. It only applies to stop signs. But like I, I feel okay about that because we already have a law about like if a cyclist is at a stoplight and they have like a reasonable, you know, like they’ve been there long enough to suspect that, hey, the light doesn’t sense me, it’s not going to change for me, then you can proceed through the red light, you know, as long as there aren’t any oncoming cars.

Dorian: [00:44:01] That’s correct. And I was also approached by the Minnesota State Patrol and the Minnesota Department of Transportation saying we really oppose the stoplight provision in this bill, but we’re okay with the stop sign. And so that was the compromise that we reached with the state patrol, Department of Public Safety and Department of Transportation.

Ian: [00:44:30] Okay. Yeah, but we got the the “practicable” has been changed. Right. That’s that’s now um.

Dorian: [00:44:38] Bicyclists may now ride as far to the right as is safe as determined by you, the bicyclist. It’s no longer that vague word practicable that some law enforcement people interpret as riding in the gutter and and and have stopped bicyclists in the metro area for doing that. It also includes riding through a right turn lane without turning right. And that’s accepted practice. Nobody’s getting a ticket for it. But the key to having this in law is that if a driver turns left and hits you while you are riding through a right turn lane without turning right, it’s your fault until August 1st this year. So be careful. But after August 1st, it will not be your fault. So I think that’s an important thing. Uh, you know, it may make the difference in, in a in a crash for someone sometime in the future.

Ian: [00:45:46] Yep. So, so August 1st is when all of these, uh, road law safety provision things change, right?

Dorian: [00:45:54] Correct.

Ian: [00:45:55] Okay. Um, and then we mentioned the e-bike subsidy. Um, did we get the like, the education stuff for elementary schools and whatnot?

Dorian: [00:46:07] I am so excited. I think that’s one of the most important provisions that’s in this bill. Uh, I think it’s something that we as cyclists should consider transformational. Um, and what it does is right now schools must teach bus safety, and they may teach bicyclist and pedestrian safety, but that is also going to change. So now schools must teach bicycle and pedestrian safety, and that does not just include middle school or elementary school. It includes middle school, too. So actually, it doesn’t really specify. So I think it’s something we can help all grade levels, including driver Ed to teach bicycle and pedestrian safety. We, of course, hope that the elementary schools and middle schools will adopt the whole walk bike fun curriculum, which is many lessons, including three on bike lessons. Um, and there are now new grade appropriate lessons for middle school. So we hope they’ll do that. Um, but at least there’s a minimum that they’re going to have to talk for 10 or 15 minutes about biking and walking safety and at least send a flyer home in the kid’s backpack.

Ian: [00:47:39] Nice. Um, let’s see. We’re bringing back the active Transportation Committee.

Dorian: [00:47:47] Yeah, That’s one of the things I thought was also important. When the Republicans were in control of both the House and Senate, they allowed that committee to sunset. It has to be reauthorized by the legislature for the Department of Transportation to convene. And I didn’t think it made any sense then. So we agreed with the Department of Transportation to pursue that. The other important provision in there is that it the the language basically requires MnDOT to be the state’s active transportation leader, provide guidance and and be a resource to cities and counties and others who are looking for guidance on active transportation and safe routes to school projects. It’s not that the MnDOT staff currently isn’t doing a great job of doing this. I think they are. But previous administrations have placed less of an emphasis on it, and we wanted the legislature to tell them that that’s important.

Ian: [00:49:00] Yeah. Yeah. If if we can get to a point where, like as a transportation activist, I don’t dread hearing MnDOT’s name on a project like, you know, if that doesn’t automatically put me into like fight or flight mode, I feel like we’re going to be in a good place.

Dorian: [00:49:21] Absolutely. Yeah. MnDOT has one of the best staffed, active transportation units in the country, and we should be proud of that. I think they’re doing a great job. They had they have, uh, staff with that as part of their job description in every district. So I think MnDOT really is an active transportation leader in this country. Um, I’m also really excited about the simple fact that the legislature, not MnDOT, uh, authorized the Mississippi River Trail as a state bicycle route. MnDOT had had signed it in cooperation with the cities and counties all along the way, but they hadn’t been the project hadn’t been endorsed by the legislature. The MnDOT had also signed and mapped and planned the North Star bicycle route from the Twin Cities to Duluth and up the North Shore. But the legislature never agreed to name it after former Congressman Jim Oberstar, who served 38 years in Congress, was the person who created the transportation, the bicycling and walking provisions and safe routes to school provisions in the federal transportation bill 30 years ago. So I’m really excited that the North Star bicycle route will now be renamed after former member of Congress Jim Oberstar, who served the Minnesota eighth District for 38 years.

Ian: [00:51:08] Wowee. Another like long distance, you know, route of of statewide significance that that I can think of is, um, the Gateway State Trail. I remember like a year or two ago hearing rumors about like that there was funding possibly coming in to like finish, you know, extending that all the way to Scandia and and. William O’Brien State Park. Was that was that it all looked at this session?

Dorian: [00:51:37] That would have been part of the environment Bill and the Department of Natural Resources I think does have the funding to do that and has been working on acquisition and partnership with the Gateway Trail Association and the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota. The challenge is the Department of Natural Resources and the state has been told by the legislature that they do not have condemnation authority, so they can only acquire right of way for the Gateway and other state trails from willing sellers.

Ian: [00:52:15] Okay.

Dorian: [00:52:16] So that’s their challenge, is to piece together a puzzle all the way to Scandia and actually to the State Park in Taylors Falls.

Ian: [00:52:26] Oh, Interstate.

Dorian: [00:52:29] Yeah, William O’Brien and Interstate State Park. I think those are that’ll be really important. And there was an allocation for a portion of the trail that has been acquired in Scandia. So there will be some construction sometime soon around Scandia. The metropolitan sales tax of three quarters of $0.01 will raise hundreds of millions of dollars and 5% of which will be dedicated to active transportation and allocated by the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. The forecasted amount for that fund is about $23 million a year, so that will be added to the funds, the federal funds that the Metropolitan Council is already allocating. And $23 million a year is a significant amount will help projects like Saint Paul and their effort to put a protected bikeway along Summit Avenue. We have to have that kind of commitment of ongoing money. So when Saint Paul or other cities in the metro area are doing road rebuilds and have transportation oriented biking and walking projects, they need to be able to apply to the Metropolitan Council to include those in their projects along the way. And the omnibus transportation bill also included a transportation advancement account and allocates about $95 million a year to the metro counties. It specifies that 41.5% of that amount, which is about 39 million, is to be spent on active transportation and transportation corridor safety studies. And the rest of the money can be used to modernize those corridors without adding traffic capacity, which means, as you know, “modernizing” is in my in my head means more complete streets projects. I think that’s a really important thing. So that more than doubles the 23 million that’s in the sales tax. And but we’re going to need listeners to this podcast and BikeMN supporters all throughout the metro area. We’ll need to monitor that program and work to ensure that that money is well spent.

Ian: [00:55:07] Right. So we need to make sure that the project staff understand what “modernization” means in the same way that we do.

Dorian: [00:55:15] Yeah, absolutely. And that takes grassroots action. So I encourage the listeners to stay in touch with BikeMN through our E-News or our blog where we will be posting more details about how our members can get involved at the county level and the city level to make sure that that safety money and is spent and the recommendations of those safety studies are implemented to modernize our transportation corridors and do more complete streets projects.

Ian: [00:55:57] I’m really, really glad that, like, we’re in a place where it has never been better to bike in Minnesota and we’re just going to continue making it better.

Dorian: [00:56:06] Absolutely. I hope this will help us with our scoring, state level scoring with the League of American Bicyclists.

Ian: [00:56:16] All right, Dorian, thank you for joining us.

Dorian: [00:56:19] Hey, thanks a lot.

Ian: [00:56:21] One last bike thing: progress on the Midtown Greenway extension.

Peter: [00:56:25] What they passed will fund a very specific things. It will fund a real design, you know, like you would see with. A real design where you can see exactly how wide it is, exactly how this connects to existing facilities. Being able to say to the federal government, we’re going to connect these with a really high quality facility means that the project has independent utility, meaning even if we aren’t able to build the piece, that depends on cooperation from the railroad, even if we just build the other pieces within the city of Saint Paul, we are connecting existing bike facilities to other bike facilities, making them all a more effective network. But here’s the other thing that this bill does, and it’s the part that is most important to me. It requires the Met Council to do the legal work to develop a draft shared use agreement that can be presented by a public sector agency to the railroad for use of the bridge. We all know the deal with the bridge. The bridge was built for two rail lines in each direction and for decades it’s only had one. So there’s plenty of space. This is not a physical problem. The bridge can handle this. The problem has been how do we negotiate a shared use agreement for the bridge that can entice the railroad into working with us, knowing that there’s federal attention from Omar and from Congresswoman Omar, Congresswoman McCollum. And we even got a letter from our senators saying this is a priority project. And if the public sector embraces this opportunity, notices just in a historical context that there’s a lot of money floating around and brings a serious proposal to the railroad, recognizing that times have changed and opportunities exist. I think this is our best shot.

Ian: [00:58:11] Let’s seize the day!

Peter: [00:58:12] Seize the day! Absolutely. Seize the day.

Ian: [00:58:21] One major transportation surprise this year was when Governor Walz vetoed the bill that would have given ride hailing drivers higher wages and rights that are closer to those of employees, which was pretty disappointing. But it seems like he is willing to develop a policy along those lines next year. Um, which brings me to our final little topic. As Peter mentioned, this year’s focus was mostly on securing funding for transit and all of the good stuff that we want to do. And then next year we can really get into the weeds of policy proposals to leverage that funding. I’m particularly interested in how we can improve rural public transit. Here in Minneapolis, Neighbors for More Neighbors is hosting a State Policy Summer Camp to prepare us for next year’s session. The first camp was just last night with several more planned throughout the summer, so look for a link to that in the show notes.

Ian: [00:59:17] Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Streets.mn Podcast. This show is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Non-derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you’re not altering it and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted, edited and transcribed by me. Ian R Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the Streets.mn Podcast. So if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at [podcast@streets.mn]. Until next time, take care.

About Ian R Buck

Pronouns: he/him

Podcaster and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"