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Big wheels line up in transportation push

When Minnesota Republicans took control of the state Legislature in 2010, the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line was one of the first targets to draw fire.

The new leadership argued it was unwise to build a new line when roads and bridges needed so much work. As the years went by, the line between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis picked up new critics. Cyclists worried the line would disrupt the Kenilworth Trail, and north Minneapolis bus riders feared being left out altogether. Even so, employers in far-flung suburbs rallied around the line as a way to get employees to work.

It has seemed at times that no one can agree on the best way to get around town.

Despite this friction, organizers in January assembled transportation advocates of all stripes into a unified coalition pushing for an overarching funding package. The Move MN alliance has since grown to more than 160 members representing roads and bridges, transit, bicyclists and pedestrians — as well as businesses and social activist organizations.

Move MN was unsuccessful in its bid for more funding during the 2014 session — in part because the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, a key supporter in earlier transportation efforts, was more focused on repealing a battery of tax increases and ensuring existing money is being spent wisely.

But advocates for roads and rail, bikes and buses have been standing side-by-side at events like the State Fair to push for 2015 legislation. Supporters say broad coalitions like these illustrate the severity of Minnesota’s transportation crisis — the state estimated in 2012 that its road shortfall could range from $5 billion to $12 billion over the next 20 years — and are the only way to win more money. But critics say they offer a something-for-everyone approach that can ignore hard choices.

“We haven’t been having an honest conversation with ourselves about what are our options,” said Jim Kumon, executive director of Strong Towns, a Brainerd-based nonprofit that advocates for sustainable growth.

‘In bed together’

Minnesota transportation groups began coming together as far back as the late 1990s, when transit started being integrated into the discussion, said Frank Douma, a research fellow who studies transportation and associate director of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota.

Advocates saw “decision-makers throw up their hands and go home” when forced to choose between different transportation options. So the groups concluded the best way to increase their piece of the pie was to make the overall pie bigger, he said. As that changed, the rhetoric became much more about creating a big tent under which everyone could unite.

“We’ve seen an evolution as they start to recognize that it’s a fool’s errand to pit mode against mode,” Douma said.

The unity of these coalitions ebbs and flows over the years, but similar players coalesce when it comes time for a big push, he said.

The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, for example, was an integral part of the 2006 push for a constitutional amendment that directed motor vehicle sales taxes to transportation, and it was one of the forces behind a 2008 effort that raised the gas tax over the veto of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It’s now on the Move MN steering committee, while Progress in Motion, an arm of the Transportation Alliance, was organized to launch the transportation funding media campaign.

Margaret Donahoe, the alliance’s executive director, said the latest push is different because it has brought more groups to the table and those involved are more active. Their numbers include numerous businesses and nonprofits that haven’t historically advocated for transportation but now worry that shortfalls could keep people and products from getting where they need to go.

But as in previous years, the coalition includes a range of advocates rallying around the larger cause of additional transportation funding.

“Joe and Jan Minnesotan don’t think there’s a particular group out there representing the bridge they cross over,” said Dave Van Hattum, transportation policy director at Transit for Livable Communities, which is also on MoveMN’s steering committee and was active in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns.

Outside of Minnesota, broad transportation coalitions between road, transit and other interests are a longstanding practice at the federal level, said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan transportation think tank in Washington, D.C. They stuck together as recently as the $10.9 billion stop-gap measure for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which the president signed into law this month.

“When it comes to federal money, the transit guys and the highway guys have been in bed together for years and have a tacit agreement not to fight,” Schank said. “In cities, roads are dominant, and if transit wants a piece of that, it needs roads.”

Jill Thomas, executive director of the Minnesota Asphalt Pavement Association, said there’s not always a clean split between groups. Cars, buses and bikes, for example, all use asphalt.

“We just want a larger piece of the pie with the transportation that’s crumbling,” she said. “When we get together and speak with one voice, we’ll definitely be heard more.”

Making choices

The result is that transit money is often tied to road expansions or upgrades, Schank said. He thinks this is probably wise because it promotes a systemwide approach that recognizes people need roads and buses to get to their “shiny new rail line.”

The I-494 Corridor Commission, despite its name, “embraces that we need more than just roads and bridges,” said Melissa Madison, the organization’s executive director.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that works for each individual,” she said.

But broad coalitions can also make nuanced discussion difficult and discourage hard choices about what’s needed and what’s not, said Kumon, the Strong Towns head. This is particularly evident when coalitions are made up of groups that stand to benefit from increased funding regardless of how that funding is spent.

“Nobody wants to go back to their constituents and be on the wrong end of a top 50 list,” he said. “It’s in no one’s vested interest to have less.”

Because coalitions are less politically viable when somebody has to be the loser, options tend to boil down to two stark choices: accept the status quo or increase taxes and spend more, he said.

Coalitions aren’t bad in themselves, Kumon emphasized, but Minnesota doesn’t have the luxury of a something-for-everyone approach. The state also can’t afford to act as if it has never made a mistake and every project ever completed was exactly the right one.

Policy changes that give cities greater leeway to determine what works could readjust the balance to something more efficient and sustainable, he said. When it came time to repair a five-lane highway through town, for example, a city could decide a three-lane road is all that’s needed.

As it stands, the centralized system disconnects the immediate costs of building a project from long-term maintenance and reconstruction costs, Kumon said. The system needs a better “feedback loop” that forces officials to ask how we got here and how they’re going to maintain any new infrastructure going forward.

For its part, Move MN has targeted sustainability as one of its guiding principles. Any funding package must be gimmick-free, grow with the economy and avoid one-off options like borrowing. Van Hattum also noted that the state puts transportation planning under agencies like the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council regional planning agency for the Twin Cities. These agencies have authority over the range transportation modes and make holistic decisions.

But Donahoe said Move MN’s goal isn’t to get into transportation policy and it’s not aiming for an overhaul. It’s focused “largely on the same revenue sources that transportation has relied on but they haven’t been adjusted.”

“We have agencies and we have experts whose job it is to manage the system,” she said. “We’re not responsible for managing the system.”

Unlikely alliances

Lately, opposition groups across the nation have formed unlikely alliances of their own in the transportation debate. In 2012, the NAACP, the Sierra Club and Tea Party groups combined to kill a $7.2 billion transportation referendum. Something similar happened earlier this month when Missouri voters rejected a $5.4 billion proposal amid criticism that ranged from an inadequate focus on transit to an unequal split of road funding between urban and rural areas.

This hasn’t happened in Minnesota yet. The Sierra Club North Star Chapter and numerous equity groups are all part of the Move MN coalition.

Kumon, at least, thinks the coalition will be able to win some kind of funding package because its powerful members deliberately started making their case early. But if that happens, he hopes legislators will set aside money to experiment with new options that could lead to bolder decisions down the road.

“As we look across the country … we see more and more where the conventional wisdom says these [opposition] groups don’t have anything to do with one another and they’re saying, ‘We just want to be able to pay our bills,’” Kumon said. “Paying our bills shouldn’t be controversial.”

What Move MN wants

— Leased vehicle sales tax: A 2006 constitutional amendment dedicated the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation, but did not do the same for leased vehicles. In 2008, legislators set aside a portion of the tax revenue from leased vehicles for transportation but kept the rest for the general fund. This proposal would direct the entire tax toward transportation, raising an estimated $32 million annually.

— Sales tax on wholesale fuel: A 5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel would raise an estimated $360 million annually. Revenue would increase with the cost of fuel because it’s a gross-receipts tax not a per-gallon tax like the existing gas tax.

— Seven-county metro sales tax: A 0.75 percentage point increase in the metro-area sales tax from 0.25 percent to 1 percent. This “One Cent” tax would raise $335 million in new revenue annually for transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

— Bike and pedestrian improvements: $16 million in existing flexible federal funding that the state receives from the Federal Highway Administration’s Surface Transportation Program would be set aside for bike and pedestrian infrastructure throughout the state.

Source: Move MN

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