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Improving smart transportation investments in Minnesota

Date Published: 11/17/2011

Author: Matt Kane, Director of policy and research


As the lyrics of that immortal theme song from “Casablanca” remind us, “The fundamental things apply.”

And here are some fundamental things when it comes to transportation policy: Strong taxpayer investment in transportation for Minnesota remains a vital condition for both business growth and economic justice. We need improvements to keep freight moving. Low- and middle-income folks need more transit and more efficient roads for getting to work and other important destinations. All travelers and commuters need more alternatives to solo car travel — transit, biking, walking and telecommuting. And we must reduce both car miles traveled and planet-damaging emissions from our vehicles.

Growth & Justice is one of many policy research organizations that have been part of the expanding choir calling for new and innovative approaches to transportation in Minnesota. And while the choir’s members may sing different parts when it comes to specific investments, policies and choices, all must join in the refrain that our transportation system is critical to growth and prosperity in the state. Slashing and scrimping on this public good is the wrong way to go.

Our newly released report, “Smart Investments in Transportation for Minnesota: Goals and Targets to Spur Growth and Expand Prosperity,” provides a primer on how transportation affects the economic well-being and quality of life for the state’s workers and residents. And it lays out the fundamentals of a long-term investment strategy.

Minnesota’s public sector needs to adopt policies and approaches to ensure a transportation system that is efficient, accessible, cost-effective and reliable. But fiscal constraints, environmental concerns and research into what works all are forcing creative thinking about smarter approaches to transportation. We can’t just do more of the same expensive expansion of the pavement grid.

This need for change is shaping the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s forthcoming 2011 vision for the next 50 years. Dubbed Minnesota Go, the vision emphasizes economic competitiveness, quality of life and environmental health, and it lays out important principles that align with the themes from Growth & Justice’s reports and policy briefs on transportation.

In addition, the Metropolitan Council, the Fargo Moorhead MetroCOG and other transportation planning organizations in the state are exploring new strategies to meet ongoing and emerging challenges.

To minimize transportation infrastructure costs, the state and its communities must preserve and maximize the use of what already exists. Construction is needed to maintain critical infrastructure and for high-benefit transportation improvements, especially those yielding positive impacts on the broader transportation system at relatively low costs. But importantly, Minnesota’s public sector must pursue smart strategies to use roads more efficiently, boost transit use, spur more travel on bike and foot, change land-use patterns and otherwise lower the demand for limited space on crowded roads.

Drawing from research into critical transportation issues and evidence of positive impacts, the new Growth & Justice report presents four goals for what Minnesota should accomplish with its investments in transportation, along with specific measures of progress.

A well-functioning freight transportation system is essential for a strong, growing state business sector. For the movement of goods and commodities, Minnesota faces challenges from an aging transportation infrastructure, upward trends in freight quantities and larger freight vehicles.

Measure of progress: Costs of freight per ton mile in Minnesota should fall below the national benchmark for freight movement by truck, rail and water.

System improvements aimed at Minnesotans with low incomes and limited transportation options should better link households to jobs, and thereby boost economic stability and prosperity. Access to other important destinations — schools, colleges and health care facilities — matters, too.

Measure of progress: An increasing share of Minnesota’s low-income households should meet the affordability range for transportation and housing costs, with the combined total below 45 percent of income.

To accomplish this end, Minnesota and its communities must, of course, invest in roads and bridges. But beyond this, the public sector needs to find smart and innovative ways to use roads more efficiently, change land-use patterns, increase transit and other alternatives to solo car travel, and otherwise lower demand for limited space on our highways.

Measures of progress: Ratings should improve for pavement conditions and transportation infrastructure on main routes throughout Minnesota’s transportation system. An increasing share of travelers chooses transportation options other than solo car trips. And average travel times should be below the national average, with increased attention to how we design our communities, how we use roads, ways to reduce demand for travel and a broader range of travel options.

The cars and trucks we drive make travel fast and convenient, but as our vehicles burn fossil fuels, they emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) that inflict serious damage on the environment. Reducing the number of miles we drive will help us reach Minnesota’s goals for GHG emissions — and it will pay off, too, in terms of lower costs for travelers and less wear and tear on the transportation infrastructure.

Measure of progress: Annual vehicle miles per capita decline 20 percent or more by 2025, from the 2009 level of 10,800 miles per vehicle.

Of course, sufficient funding is required for quality public sector infrastructure and systems, and Minnesota’s citizens, elected officials and transportation policymakers will need to secure more money to support the state’s vital transportation infrastructure. Notably, it was the business lobby that led the last successful fight, in 2008, to raise transportation taxes and revenues. The Minnesota Transportation Alliance’s long-range transportation plan — titled “A Roadmap to 2040” — provides a useful and comprehensive listing of the full range of funding options for transportation.

Investments in our transportation system, done right, pay off in terms of economic growth, expanded prosperity and improved quality of life. And even amid the tightest fiscal constraints, Minnesota must address transportation needs and challenges.

That’s a timeless tune.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, November 17, 2011.

Matt Kane is the director of policy and research at Growth & Justice, a policy research organization focused on expanding prosperity in Minnesota, and the author of the report “Smart Investments in Transportation for Minnesota: Goals and Targets to Spur Growth and Expand Prosperity.”

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