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Minnesota Transportation Stalling While Others Progress

March 31, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

Minnesota's state legislature is mulling over deep transportation funding cuts that would mainly impact transit. A house bill cuts $120 million from transit and defunds inter-city passenger rail programs. Meanwhile, across the pond, the European Union is proposing a transportation plan which calls for cities to phase out petrol-fueled cars by 2050. That's quite a drastic juxtaposition.

It is far too easy comparing the U.S. and Europe when it comes to transit, however, and paint a gloomy picture for the states. With nearly 500 million people, the European Union has a larger and denser population than America, making the benefits of diversified, efficient transportation more apparent. While the density difference makes the juxtaposition imperfect, the drastic difference should serve as a wake-up call to Americans, and Minnesotans especially.

The bill in question is the omnibus transportation finance bill (HF 1140), championed by State Representative Mike Beard (R-Shakopee), the current House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee chair. Responses to the bill from the transportation community have been rapid and fiercely opposed. The nationally-focused environmental website Grist took notice, and responded plainly: "these cuts would have devastating impacts on the regional economy, clog the roads with new drivers, and above all, disproportionately punish low-income and elderly public transit users."

Locally, transportation officials have condemned the plan by presenting the consequences. A letter from Sue Haigh, the chair of the Metropolitan Council, outlines the bill's harmful implications for transit. Haigh first paints the picture of what a fare-increase-only solution would look like: a $4 fare increase and significantly decreased ridership. A system-wide approach to dealing with the cuts in transit funding is the more likely approach, in the unlikely case that the bill is passed with these transit cuts intact. This approach would mean the loss of 550 transit jobs, weekend transit service, and almost half of regular bus service.

Tom Sorel, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, has also opposed the bill. His concern lies in the cuts to transit, especially in greater Minnesota, but he also opposes the new restrictions to passenger rail. According to his letter, the bill would eliminate the MnDOT passenger rail office and essentially cripple the progress we've made on passenger rail. This includes planning stages for many non-existent routes, but it also includes the renovation of the Union Depot, a multi-modal transportation hub that is currently under construction

Beard's responses to these criticisms have been mixed. According to the Pioneer Press, his response to Haigh's letter was dismissive. He claimed that the bill is still in its early stages, and that transit cuts would not end up being so drastic in the final version of the bill. It has currently passed the House and been introduced in the Senate, which is impressive for something in early stages. Another response was much less consoling. MPR summarized Beard's response to the MnDOT letter as: "Minnesota ain't seen nothin' yet."

Let's take another look at the European Union's transportation plan. Besides phasing petrol cars out of cities, it calls for 50% of passenger and freight transportation over 200 miles to be handled by rail and water transportation. It focuses on efficient fuels and smart transportation management systems, which would aid in their goal to significantly decrease casualties on the road. One of the biggest goals that the plan strives for is a 60% decrease in greenhouse gases in all modes of transportation by 2050.  

Stateside advocates of smart transportation investment need not despair, however. There are still voices, movements, and political figures in support of weaning ourselves off of our destructive addiction to oil and focusing on efficient, alternative transportation. A reliable and powerful advocate is President Obama, who recently gave a speech about energy policy at Georgetown University. During the speech, he outlined a goal to reduce oil imports by one-third over the next ten years. He emphasized increased fuel efficiency for vehicles, from cars to heavy-duty trucks. He also stated that transit and high-speed rail play an essential role in decreasing consumption of oil and aiding America's energy security.

This is not a purely partisan split, nor should it be. U.S. Representative Steve LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio, recently spoke at the American Public Transportation Association's legislative conference. Instead of advocating cuts to public transit as Beard and others have, LaTourette advocated increasing funding for transit systems across the board. He argued that transit is part of a robust transportation system which is necessary for America's economic development.

The transportation bill in Minnesota is a step in the wrong direction. Though it has not become law and changes are still likely, it outlines the transportation priorities of the new legislative majority. These priorities emphasize the currently dominant form of transportation, which carries a lot of problems—from fluctuating gas prices to environmental impacts to road maintenance. We need to diversify our transportation and focus not just on fuel efficiency, but also on efficiency of modes of transportation. Maybe, just maybe, we could learn something from Europe.

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