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Big Move Forward for Transportation, Miles Left to Go

July 02, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.

Apologies to Charles Dickens, but it's hard to imagine a sorrier situation for Minnesota's vital public transportation assets - roads, bridges and transit - than what existed a year ago as Minnesota 2020 began tackling the issues that matter.

Pavement across the state was crumbling, the list of deficient bridges was growing, transit expansion was virtually stalled despite rising ridership and Twin Cities freeway traffic was chronically snarled, costing commuters dearly in wasted time and gasoline.

Despite these universally acknowledged problems, the state was mired in policy gridlock when it came to trading in its rusty 1988-model transportation funding system. The chief obstructionist was Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had twice vetoed roads and transit finance bills passed by bipartisan legislative majorities. He argued that Minnesota couldn't raise its gas tax by a nickel or a dime with pump prices at $2 (2005 version) or $3 a gallon (2007; OK, so not quite everything was as bad as could be last year).

Pawlenty also declared, with no visible evidence, that investing in our transportation infrastructure would hurt Minnesota's economy. Backed by fellow no-new-taxers in the Legislature, his vetoes held, and our mobility kept suffering.

Then a bridge fell down. Thirteen people died. Dozens were injured. As reports of many more structurally deficient bridges surfaced, the driving public suddenly had greater worries than potholes, traffic jams and gas prices. Worse came to worst.

Hopes for a prompt special legislative session to address two decades of fiscal neglect of transportation fizzled in the face of Pawlenty's continued intransigence on taxes. But other government leaders, public servants and transportation advocates buckled down to the hard work of advancing the debate.

In January, Minnesota 2020 published "Moving Forward," which documented the benefit of transportation investment to Minnesota's economy - as much as an eight-to-one payoff, according to an influential Texas study. Legislative transportation leaders say the report's focus on economic stewardship helped persuade reluctant lawmakers to support progress for our mobility.

In late February, supermajorities of 91 House members and 47 senators overrode Pawlenty's veto, enacting $6.6 billion in new funding for roads, bridges and transit over 10 years. It still stands as the only successful override of any of the dozens of vetoes he has issued in 5-1/2 years in office.

While this measure was long overdue and sorely needed, it's not even a temporary solution to Minnesota's mobility woes, much less a permanent fix. For example, it raises no more than one-sixth of the $2.4 billion a year Pawlenty's own Minnesota Department of Transportation says is required to meet its goals for trunk highways alone - which comprise only one-tenth of the state's total road mileage.

How can this be? Inflation -- which Pawlenty and some other policymakers remain intent on keeping out of their budget calculations, even if they can't stop it from occurring in real life - marches on, especially in prices of the fuel, asphalt, concrete and steel it takes to build roads, bridges and rail lines.

For example, simply to match the buying power of 1988's 20-cent state gas tax, the current rate, dedicated exclusively to roads and bridges, should be 36-1/2 cents. It's now 22 cents, and it won't top out at 28-1/2 cents until 2012, after four more years of inflation erosion.

The Minnesota County Engineers Association, whose members oversee 45,000 miles of roads and bridges, has called for indexing the gas tax to inflation, as do several other states. We at MN2020 concur. Other county-option road user taxes and fees should also be authorized to reduce our state's inequitable reliance on local property taxes for transportation.

Besides the gridlock-shattering financing enacted this year, there were a few other victories in the transportation sphere. State bonding for the Central Corridor light rail line, which will secure $450 million in federal funding, finally made it past one more Pawlenty veto. Another state-federal partnership will upgrade traffic-clogged Cedar Avenue and I-35W with dedicated bus rapid transit and congestion-priced toll lanes. And many young lives figure to be saved with the passage of new restrictions on teenage novice drivers.

Minnesota 2020 has advocated for all these smart policies. So, a year after our launch, it may not be the best of times for our ability to get around, but the situation is clearly improving. We're dedicated to continue promoting the ideas that will keep Minnesota moving forward for years to come.

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