Open Letter to Speaker Daudt, Senate Leader Bakk, and Governor Dayton

This letter was hand delivered to 16 legislators, the Governor, and the Lt. Governor on Friday, May 13, 2016.

By Barb Thoman, Transportation Advisor
Saint Paul, Minnesota

The current debate about transportation funding is discouraging. We don’t need a bigger highway system for a growing population of retirees and young people who desire to drive less. Our highway system is already large and its maintenance will be a burden on generations to come.  We seem to gloss over the negative impacts of our heavy reliance on driving: unhealthy air along our highways, families burdened by the high cost of vehicle ownership, lake and river degradation from rain and snow melt running off roads and parking lots, climate change, and traffic fatalities and injuries. It is time to shift our priorities from highway expansion to maintenance and safety on the roads and bridges we already have and expand our systems of transit and non-motorized travel.

Highway expansion. For 20 years, leaders in the Twin Cities metro region have been saying, “We can’t build out way out of congestion.” Nevertheless, we keep trying.  MnDOT’s Metro Area Trunk Highway budget for 2016-2019 identifies 18% of spending for “mobility” projects ($241 million) and 14% of spending in 2020-2024 ($244 million). Ironically, only 5% is budgeted for traveler safety.  Our metro region has the 8th largest highway system of the 20 most populous metro areas. Our highway system is nearly 50 percent larger (lane miles per person) than is the highway system in the Chicago region.

MnDOT’s Transportation Funds Forecast from February anticipates that Minnesota’s Highway User Tax Distribution fund will grow to $2.24 billion in 2019 – a 9% increase from 2016. Minnesota’s federal transportation revenue is projected to grow 3% per year through 2020.  

Transit service will not grow without legislative action. Transit service in the Twin Cities metro area is growing at a slower rate than in peer regions. The Seattle region has 50 percent more bus service than we do. Denver will open four new light rail lines in 2016, adding to 47 miles of light rail already in operation. Maybe it’s not a surprise that Denver is the number one destination for new college graduates. The legislature should authorize an increase in the metro sales tax for transit. If that is not possible this session, these long-awaited transit projects should be funded from the state surplus:

  • Implementation of the Metropolitan Council’s bus expansion plan (requires sales tax increase) and full funding of the Greater Minnesota Transit Plan
  • Improving the Mall of America transit station ($11 million)
  • The Orange Line bus station at Lake Street ($25 million)
  • A second Heywood Bus Garage ($70 million)
  • Continued planning for the Blue Line Extension, Gold Line, & other corridors ($70 million)
  • Southwest Light Rail state matching funds needed for federal grant ($135 million)
  • Investment in intercity rail planning/implementation ($21 million)
  • Local trail and Safe Routes to School projects

Transit is more than a hedge against future population growth. Transit can help to slow the destructive pace at which we are paving over farmland, prairies, and woodlands in this region. Transit provides affordable transportation and is critical for low income households, people with a disability, students, and seniors. Transit reduces the cost of expensive employee and customer parking, so it’s good for business. And transit is safer than travel by private vehicle.

Crumbling city streets need a solution too.  Many people mistakenly believe that if Minnesota raises the gas tax or increases license tab fees, the potholes in their town will be fixed. That is highly unlikely. Since the 1950’s our state constitution has decreed that city streets get the crumbs from state transportation funding (only 9 percent of state dollars and then only for cities with 5,000 or more residents). The burden of city street maintenance will continue to fall primarily on the over-stressed local property tax and some GO bonding until a different, more substantial source of funding is identified (maybe a city wheelage tax or local parking tax).

Communities want safe walking and bicycling. I traveled in the Netherlands last year and saw the potential for non-motorized transportation for people of all ages, including the very old. Even on cold rainy days, a huge percentage of people in the Netherlands bicycle to work, school, and shopping on state-of-the-art trail facilities. In Minnesota, most communities want trails and sidewalks – for better health, for recreation, for transportation – but local property taxes are already too high to enable significant expansion of local networks without state support.

I hope you consider these concerns as you deliberate about transportation in the final days of the legislative session.

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