Advocates of increased funding for roads, bridges and transit projects across Minnesota hope to recreate a formula that worked once before.
In the wake of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, a broad coalition of groups, which included the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce as well as labor unions, joined hands to push for a 5.5 cent gas tax increase in the 2008 session. In order to pass the increase, advocates had to override a veto from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It was the first gas tax hike in two decades and meant $6 billion in additional dollars to pay for road and bridge construction around the state.
Now an all-new campaign, Move MN, is trying to align similar forces in the wake of the DFL-controlled Legislature’s failure to pass new transportation funding last spring. While several key legislators pushed for a bump in the gas tax to pay for new projects around the state, legislators were only able to pass a so-called “lights-on” bill in 2013, maintaining current levels of spending.
“This is a big bill, this is a big idea, and big ideas don’t happen at the Capitol unless there are a lot of people pushing for them,” said DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein, who chairs the Transportation Finance Committee in the House. “We need a much more vigorous grassroots effort to get this done.”
But in many ways, this campaign is different. For starters, Move MN plans to push a “comprehensive” transportation package, campaign manager Darin Broton said. That means bringing together advocates from typically warring sides of what he calls the “three-legged stool” – roads and bridges, transit and bicyclists. In addition, the proposal must balance transportation needs in the metro area and greater Minnesota, Broton said.
The campaign is also pushing for new dedicated funding for transportation next session. Broton was coy about how much money that could mean and how it would be paid for, but he was at least partially dismissive of using a gas tax this time around.
“Every five years with the gas tax we have to come back and say we need a nickel here and a nickel there,” Broton said. “The campaign wants to get us from having to readdress transportation financing every year. So the question is: Can we find a way to create a long-term sustainable funding source for all of our modes?”
Need is great, but political will lacking
The Transportation Funding Advisory Committee (TFAC), which was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, released a report in December 2012 that many thought would set the stage for a funding increase in 2013.
The report projected that the state is short $21 billion over the next 20 years relative to what’s needed to maintain Minnesota’s transportation system. Building a “world class” transportation system over 20 years would require even more money — $50 billion to be exact. The report also floated several ways to pay for the increase, including hikes in the gas tax and the motor vehicle registration tax.
Dayton was initially warm to the idea of increasing the sales tax in the seven-county metro area to pay for transit projects, but before DFL lawmakers could unveil their proposal to increase transportation funding around the state, Dayton came out strongly opposed to a gas tax increase. The Senate offered some funding increase proposals and sent a gas tax increase to conference committee, but in the end, the only funding from the session came in the form of $300 million in trunk highway bonding, which advocates stress is not the same thing as a funding increase.
Since session ended, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) commissioner Charlie Zelle and Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh have been traveling the state on a public relations campaign of sorts, talking about how transportation affects the economy and quality of life in the state.
More than 80 groups signed on
Move MN plans to make that message even more public.
The group has enlisted more than 80 organizations to the cause, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 5, the Minnesota Transportation Alliance and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Move MN already has an 11-person steering committee and has commissioned public polling; rallies and paid advertisements are planned in the coming months.
AFSCME spokeswoman Jennifer Munt said 2,700 members of their union work at MnDOT and about 15,000 members work along transit lines in the metro area. For the push to be successful this time, supporters of transit and roads need to stop competing for dollars. “Unless transit and roads and bridges move forward together, nothing will happen at the Legislature,” she said. “There is a sense of urgency. Congress has made it clear that they are going to provide a smaller match for roads and transit funding, and the states that figure out how to fund their transportation structure will have an advantage.”
For now, the Minneapolis chamber is the only such body to sign off on the effort. They have pushed for increased transportation funding for years, and Todd Klingel, the chamber’s president, is hopeful that outstate chambers will sign on to Move MN soon.
“The campaign is about how we remind people that this problem is not going away and is only going to get worse,” Klingel said. “I have talked to some chambers outstate who say this is important that we solve transportation in the region, because it helps move their goods around.”
Certainly, the $825 million net projected budget surplus this week was welcome news for transportation funding advocates, but they’re aware that many other groups are competing for the same dollars. It doesn’t help that next year is an election year, and lawmakers are hesitant to push any kind of new spending or taxes for Minnesotans at the pump.
But Broton remains hopeful. “If we are divided on where the money should go, the Legislature isn’t going to pass it,” he said. “What was successful back [in 2008] was the same recipe that’s starting to pull together right now – stakeholders coming together on this.”