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Transportation a fast-growing priority

Date Published: 02/20/2014

Author: Dane Smith, President

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

A public demand for improving and expanding transportation and transit systems is rising faster than any other concern, according to the latest national survey on policy priorities by the Pew Research Center.

And judging from the sheer number and variety of groups joining the MoveMN coalition — which is supporting a package of revenue increases to provide about $700 million more annually for transportation, transit and bike/pedestrian improvements — the demand in Minnesota is high and rising too.

Between January of 2013 and January of 2014 in the Pew poll, the policy goal of “improving roads, bridges, [and] public transit” grew by the most percentage points of any of the 20 concerns. Almost 40 percent nationally now rank transportation investment as a “top priority” compared to 30 percent just a year ago.

That percentage would no doubt be much higher if there were greater awareness of the importance of basic public infrastructure, and how essential it is to long-term economic competitiveness. Most of us take these foundational transportation systems for granted, at least until a bridge falls down or the ride to work becomes unbearable because of road surface conditions,  congestion or limited transit options.

And perhaps because transportation is financed primarily by gas taxes at the local, state and federal level, it typically does not top the list of national concerns for which new revenues and investment must be prioritized. Indeed, the Pew Poll shows that improving education (69 percent), preserving Social Security (66 percent), and defending against terrorism (73 percent) are still far ahead of transportation. Reducing the budget deficit still ranks in the top 10, but declined more than any of the concerns (from 72 percent to 63 percent since January of 2013).

Transportation is every bit as essential as those priorities to our way of life, to efficient business operations, and to economic fairness. Neglecting this priority is like ignoring a crumbling foundation under your house.

And that foundation in Minnesota most certainly is crumbling. Nearly half our roads and bridges are in poor or mediocre condition and we rank a dismal 38th among the states for overall road conditions. Only about 10 percent of Twin Cities metro-area jobs are served by transit systems, and businesses are increasingly demanding that amenity for employee mobility. Upward trends in truck weights and freight movement create even more demand for better roads and bridges. Time is money, particularly in the world of commercial transportation.

Minnesota needs a balanced mix of major new permanent infrastructure funding, not just to repair and maintain what we have, but also to continue our economic success. We are booming economically, ranked in the top five or top 10 states on almost every measure of economic health and growth. State experts expect that we will add 350,000 new jobs by 2030. The Twin Cities metropolitan area is expected to add nearly 1 million new residents (on a base of about 3 million) by 2040.

To respond to these compelling needs, the MoveMN coalition is proposing that the Minnesota Legislature enact a sustainable and dedicated blend of revenue increases that include an increase of the ¼-cent metro sales for transit to 1 cent, a new 5 percent tax on wholesale fuel similar to that in about 20 other states, and closing loopholes and reallocating funding.

The MoveMN proposal provides a good balance of benefits for both the Twin Cities metropolitan area and Greater Minnesota. That’s why backers include not only dozens of urban nonprofit groups seeking better transit for non-car owners and street safety for bikers and pedestrians, but a growing list of business groups and cities and counties statewide.

The total amount of some $700 million annually in new revenues is neither arbitrary nor excessive. Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle recently reminded a Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce group that MnDOT had identified  $50 billion in needed investments over the next 20 years (for all modes, including rail and aviation), and the state faces a $12 billion gap over that period for roads and bridges alone.

And as a percentage of our state economy, the $700 million price tag is modest. It amounts to about a quarter of 1 percent of Minnesota’s total projected personal income of $275 billion in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
As important as transportation is to competitiveness and business growth, MoveMN’s proposed investment of some $335 million annually for public transit systems also would help reduce economic inequality and racial equity and employment gaps. At a recent Metropolitan Council forum titled “Everyone Deserves a Seat,” Greg LeRoy, executive director of the national Good Jobs First organization, testified that transit was “the sweet spot for jobs.”

Numerous studies show that communities of color and low- and middle-income households benefit disproportionately from construction and permanent jobs created by transit investment, as well as from more affordable mobility.

Minnesota was suffering from two decades of no new revenues for transportation when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people. The next year, thanks to strong business support, the Legislature finally came through with a modest gas tax increase and a transportation funding package that at least helped slow the deterioration, improve some bottlenecks, and fix some deficient bridges.
We really ought not wait for another bridge collapse. Nor should we wait until employers start looking for expansion in competing regions and states. This includes so-called “red states” that are generally averse to taxes, but are leapfrogging us with new revenues for transit. Salt Lake City, Denver and the big metro regions in Texas are all aggressively investing in transit.

Blogger Angie Schmitt, writing for Streetsblog, notes that in Salt Lake City, planners have added 300 miles of light rail to regional plans. Further, Schmitt observed, studies show that “the Salt Lake City transit system offers better job access than that of any other city in the country.” Utah leaders also point to studies that show local economic growth has been more equitable than elsewhere in the U.S., with gains across many income levels. And the region greatly improved on air quality standards, Schmitt wrote.

Having to catch up to Texas and Utah is a little embarrassing for a state that’s always prided itself on first-rate public infrastructure, or at least better than average. But we must catch up and forge ahead. Our competitiveness will depend on it.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, February 20, 2014. 


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