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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Missing Opportunity’s Signs

August 05, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Tuesday morning, driving south on Saint Paul’s Raymond Avenue, I missed the temporary “road closed/detour” sign. A block later, I encountered the barricaded Raymond/University intersection. And you know what? It was my own damn fault. I saw the sign but it didn’t register. I missed the chance to take the best route.

By Wednesday morning, intersection access was restored, a remarkable achievement for construction crews working in the middle of continuous traffic. While the Central Corridor Light Rail Train is the immediate reason for tearing up University Avenue in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, a second, larger truth bolsters the work. University Avenue is at least 20 and possibly 30 or 40 years overdue for a full rebuild.

My missed detour was coming, one way or another.

The CCLRT project opens insight into contradictory human expectations. We want free-flowing commerce. We want easy, convenient, multi-modal conveyance options. We want unrestricted travel freedoms. We do not want to be inconvenienced. And, we want someone else to pay for it.

There’s just one problem; these are impossible expectations. Following street or road reconstruction or repaving, project benefits are immediate and obvious. The potholes disappeared, vehicle wear slows, commute times improve and the sky can seem just a little bluer during the morning commute as we quickly forget the temporary inconvenience and cost.

Convenient conveyance—meaning getting from point A to point B with remarkably little fuss—is an expensive proposition. The only thing worse? It’s absence. Without robust public infrastructure—roads, bridges, ports, airports, locks, dams, rail lines—commerce slows to a crawl. In many cases, it disappears entirely. Every business requires some form of raw materials, even if that raw material is a ready-to-go computer, and, following the value-added processing step, product distribution. Slowing procurement and distribution raises costs and lowers profit.

The better question, then, is which is more inconvenient: living with regular road upgrades or declining economic activity as businesses fold or leave?

About ten years ago, I spent a week in Burma. Everything that you’ve read about the military government’s repressive regime is true yet it’s a fascinating, ethereal place. I flew between destinations because Burma is a long, narrow country and because most Burmese highways make Minnesota alleys look like high capacity thoroughfares.

I’m not kidding.

The Burmese Army generals spend Burma’s resources maintaining their own power. Roads receive enough funding to stay minimally functional. After my week of being driven around Pagan, Mandalay and Yangon, I suspect most roads have never been properly rebuilt since the British pulled out in 1962. It’s an extreme example of what happens when infrastructure investment disappears.

To be fair, Burma has many problems. Poor roads are a symptom, not the disease, yet without robust infrastructure, Burma is further isolated from global trade. In the 1950s, Burma was the world’s leading rice exporter. Today, it must import food to feed its people. Shoddy infrastructure complicates even basic relief. Economically transformative commerce is truly, deeply shackled by the country’s poor roads, bridges, rail lines and ports.

When Burma’s military overthrew the elected government, Burma turned away from the world. In the past 50 years, the world moved on while Burma stood still. That’s Burma’s lesson for Minnesota. The world will find a way around us if we stop investing in ourselves and stop engaging the national and global marketplaces.

This simple observation is an inconvenient truth. It should, amidst the “no new taxes/taxes are bad”, Tea Party, conservative ranting, remind us that we prosper because we invest in ourselves. If we don’t, no one else will.

Simultaneously, we must vigorously work to be sure that community investment’s benefits are shared broadly. If they accumulate to a few people, as in the case of Burma’s dictators, poverty, underperformance and instability grow. Preserving a lower income tax rate for Minnesota’s highest income earners allows that group to reap greater rewards at lower cost than everyone else. This policy facilitates rather than mitigates wealth disparity’s negative social consequences.

I was irritated Tuesday, missing that sign, but I blame myself. Nothing lasts forever. Rebuilding roads and reconfiguring transit systems is a part of life. And, life goes on. We can move Minnesota forward or we can get left behind.

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