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Transportation package must serve entire state

Gov. Mark Dayton in his session-opening speech to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce wryly noted broad agreement on two points: “First, that we need to invest more money in transportation; and second, that no one wants to pay for it.”

That second point has to change, in a big way, if legislators are sincere about improving the economic health of Greater Minnesota and helping all of our state share in the relative prosperity of the Twin Cities.

We have made some progress over the last 25 years toward increasing transportation options in our vital circulatory system throughout the state. But the reality is that more than half of Minnesota’s roads are more than 50 years old, and more than 40 percent of the state’s bridges are more than 40 years old. A modest, short-term transportation package simply won’t keep up with demands on the system.

Just as important, for those who don’t drive or own a car, public transportation and mobility alternatives remain fragmented and inadequate, especially in Greater Minnesota. These underserved folks include older Minnesotans, aging past their driving years and who want to stay in their own homes, younger Minnesotans who are at the lowest levels of holding driver’s licenses in 50 Years, and Minnesotans earning less than $30,000 a year, for whom the nearly $9,000 a year it takes to own, insure, maintain and gas up the average car is cost-prohibitive.

This is not a minor or mysterious health problem that calls for months or years more diagnosis or study.  Consensus for a major rehabilitation has been growing for years, and building the transportation network of the future demands bold action now.

A Greater Minnesota network with mobility options

The new Republican majority in the Minnesota House has put the spotlight on rural and Greater Minnesota, a good thing. And one of the first bills, House File 4, shows a higher priority on transportation. But the current House version is only a bare-bones “Roads and Bridges First” package, based on one-time, existing funds. It should be seen as an early placeholder. For those who care about transportation options in Greater Minnesota, it is not yet a full-grown proposal.

Expanding transportation options in Greater Minnesota for those who do not have a car or cannot drive is more challenging than in large urban areas. As the Minnesota Department of Transportation 2013 Transit Report noted, without “sustained increases to future funding,” those networks in Greater Minnesota “will not be able to sustain or expand the number of service hours currently provided”—much less build the network of the future. The key word is “sustained.” One-time monies will not do.

A Greater Minnesota transportation network needs to combine public, nonprofit, private-for-profit and volunteer drivers. It has to rely more on dial-a-ride and on-demand services with minivans and small buses than on options common in larger cities, such as large buses for 20 or more passengers, light rail, and streetcars or trolleys. It needs to cross county lines and connect people with other transportation systems, such as commuter and passenger rail, which should include extending Northstar commuter rail service to St. Cloud.

Currently, Waseca County is the only Greater Minnesota county with no transportation alternatives for those who don’t drive. But many others do not have county-wide service, and many more have only fragmented or limited service. We need more hours of service and more days of service in many of our Greater Minnesota communities. We need more multi-county services to link more communities and to take advantage of efficiencies.

Low ‘Price of Government’ affords larger investment

Our system of roads and bridges built over the last century has depended primarily on the per gallon gas tax. But that source of funding is declining, due to changing driving habits and improved vehicle fuel efficiency.

We must find new, dependable, sustainable ways to finance not only roads and bridges but the transportation options of the future — including flexible transportation options for people in Greater Minnesota.

The timing is right for a substantial increase in this economic development investment, in part because Minnesotans arguably are under-taxed, from a historical perspective. Minnesota’s official Price of Government — the total percentage in personal income that Minnesotans pay in state and local taxes — has declined from a peak of 18 percent in 1994 to 15.4 percent in 2013, and is below 15 percent this year. The decline has occurred for every income group, from rich to poor.

Dayton and Senate DFLers have proposed a comprehensive transportation package that addresses the need for sustained transportation funding, which should be the starting point for a serious discussion. Based on a framework long championed by Move MN, a statewide coalition of more than 200 business and community organizations and local governments, the Senate proposal taps into a diverse mix of revenue sources, and begins to get Minnesota away from the dependence on dwindling gas tax revenues.

It builds on our base of transportation user fees that are constitutionally dedicated to transportation and adjusts them. Following the example of more than a dozen other states, the Senate proposal would apply the existing 6.5 percent state sales tax to fuel (which currently is exempt from the sales tax) and the proceeds would be constitutionally dedicated to roads and bridges. It would add about 14 cents per gallon to gas prices based on recent averages.

The Senate proposal also would adjust license tab fees modestly. The minimum license tab fee of $25 has not been changed since 1981. It would dedicate all of the leased vehicle sales tax to Greater Minnesota transit and to state highways in the Twin Cities metro area — instead of having some of this go into the state’s General Fund. The Senate proposal also boosts funding for Greater Minnesota transit from the General Fund.

Cities across the state would have a five-year window to approve a Municipal Street Improvement Fee, which would give all our Greater Minnesota communities flexibility and revenue for sprucing up their infrastructure and attracting economic development.

Minnesota’s ground transportation networks, Dayton said in his Chamber speech, should be compared to our body’s circulation system, saying they are “to our state’s social and economic vitality what arteries are to the human body; if those vessels deteriorate and become inadequate, the body weakens and finally dies.”

He’s absolutely right about that, so we need to follow doctor’s orders and undertake a comprehensive, holistic response to that deterioration—not just stopgap repairs to the major arteries. The treatment is not cheap, but we can’t afford the alternative.

Pia Lopez is a former editorial page editor for the St. Cloud Times and the Duluth News Tribune, an adjunct faculty member at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, and a Policy Fellow for Growth & Justice. She lives in Avon (pop. 1,400).

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