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How Minnesota Moved Forward on Transportation

May 19, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Amid all the unkind cuts in store for Minnesotans at the conclusion of the 4-1/2-month budget staredown between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators, there's at least one area of state service that's getting smart new investments: Transportation.

From passenger and freight rail to Twin Cities transit, local bridges and regional airports, the capital investment borrowing bill enacted this week includes more than $80 million to keep Minnesotans moving while pushing the state toward economic recovery.

The amount dedicated to mobility may be unprecedented in a budget year, when bonding bills are typically small and supposedly limited to "emergency" projects. Fortunately, however, the Legislature and governor recognized the state's economic emergency in the current Great Recession and applied significant funds to infrastructure projects, which return $1.59 in economic output for each dollar invested, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's

That's more bang for the buck than projected from anything in the current federal recovery act except for temporary increases in food stamps ($1.73) and extended jobless benefits ($1.63), Zandi wrote. Tax cuts, according to his analysis, lag far behind, with permanent reductions in income, investment and corporate taxes all paying less than 40 cents on the dollar.

Minnesota remains stuck with prosperity-sucking state income tax cuts enacted a decade ago, no thanks to Pawlenty's no-new-taxes intransigence. But Pawlenty and legislators deserve praise for counteracting that jobs-killing stance with the long-term investments that will spur construction hiring, brighten our economic future and maximize Minnesota's ability to tap federal stimulus funds.

What's more, Pawlenty reversed his longtime opposition to paying for most passenger rail and transit improvements, exercising the line-item veto on only one transportation project: $3 million for unspecified freight rail track improvements. Meanwhile, he let stand a $4 million grant to the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority for rehabilitating ancient Minnesota Prairie Line tracks that limit the speed of agricultural shipments to as little as 7 miles per hour.

Here are the rest of the transportation-related items in the bonding bill, H.F.855:

  • Intercity passenger rail -- $26 million. This is a big breakthrough for Minnesota, positioning it to make the most of the Obama administration's focus on restoring fast train travel to the United States. Likely beneficiaries are planned 110 m.p.h. connections from the Twin Cities to Chicago and Duluth, although no routes are specified. That will be up to the statewide rail plan the Department of Transportation is scheduled to issue at year's end. This appropriation can be used for planning, environmental work, right-of-way acquisition and construction.
  • Metropolitan Council transit -- $21 million. Another breakthrough, including $8.5 million for the downtown-linking Central Corridor light rail line set to start construction next year. The rest of the money can be applied to any of nine listed transit projects: Bottineau Boulevard. Cedar Avenue in Dakota County, the I-94 corridor in Washington County, 7th St. in St. Paul to the airport and Mall of America, Red Rock, Robert Street, Rush Line, Southwest Corridor and the Union Depot multimodal transit hub in St. Paul.
  • Local bridges -- $10 million. Continued funding for a long-running program to replace the worst county, city and township bridges statewide. Another $600,000 will go to Minneapolis to acquire land for and design a new St. Anthony Parkway bridge over the Northtown Rail Yard.
  • Regional airports -- $8.6 million. This includes $2 million for a tower and other airfield facilities at Alexandria, $1.7 million to extend a rebuild a runway in Bigfork and $4.9 million toward a new Duluth Airport terminal.
  • Ports and harbors -- $6 million. Split evenly between a harbor project in Two Harbors and unspecified publicly owned port development work.
  • Relief for disaster-damaged roads and bridges -- $2.9 million. To repair trunk highway assets damaged in spring flooding in northwest Minnesota.
  • Veterans Victory Memorial Parkway -- $1 million. For improvements to a north Minneapolis stretch of the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway.
  • Trails -- $697,000. This is split among a walking path in Clara City ($225,000), the Spring Lake Trail in Mora ($100,000) and the Rockville-Cold Spring-Richmond Rocori Trail for pedestrians and bicyclists in Stearns County ($372,000).
While there's much to be disappointed about this session, Minnesota did move forward on transportation.

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