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Rebalancing MN’s Transportation Investments for the 21st Century

November 03, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

To hear some advocates of urban sprawl tell it, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Metropolitan Council is poised to defund highways in the Twin Cities area in favor of outsized investments in traffic management and transit. Nothing could be further from the truth, but here’s Carver County Commissioner Randy Maluchnik making that argument in an Oct. 12 Finance and Commerce opinion piece:

The council’s 2030 Transportation Policy Plan “sets aside only $900 million over the next 20 years to meet mobility and highway expansion needs … That’s $45 million per year to meet all needs in the metropolitan area – where one bridge project alone can easily cost $100 million to $200 million.”

All needs? Only $900 million? In fact, the plan envisions up to $8.7 billion in spending on the region’s highways through 2030. Maluchnik’s complaint? Too much of that money will go to preserving our deteriorating 1,100-mile metro network of highways and arterials and not enough to laying new pavement where his exurban constituents live.

“The regional plan needs to consider the needs of growing communities outside of the beltway more adequately rather than focusing on the existing freeway system,” Maluchnik wrote. “Clearly, this plan is not ready for prime time.”

Similar protests emanated from Scott County, another exurban corner of the metro area where anti-government rugged individualism is the rule – except when there’s an opportunity to sell the family farm to developers for millions thanks to a new four-lane hard by the back 40. Prime example: Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau’s $3.3 million windfall sale of Carver County acreage after her nearly two decades in government officialdom spent advocating – and finally winning -- widening of Hwy. 212 past her place.

The Met Council plan, scheduled for formal adoption Nov. 10, would deemphasize that kind of costly expansion in the future, putting the kibosh on most hopes for wider roads and new river crossings from distant bedroom communities to job centers closer in.

Met Council leaders have already said it makes no sense to buy more buses when there’s little prospect of raising the revenue to operate them. Now, having witnessed accelerating deterioration of roads in the past decade, they are applying the same prudent logic to highway planning: Fix what you have before building new.

Future Minnesota leaders might increase user fees dedicated to highways to speed the day of further expansion, but it’s likely that many Carver and Scott residents would oppose that. They’d prefer to pay nothing for an easier commute and higher property values. The Met Council is reminding them that there’s no free lunch.

One of the strategies it advocates is greatly increased reliance on congestion-priced freeway lanes such as those now successfully operating on Interstate Hwys. 35W and 394. Variable tolls on these lanes don’t raise money for new construction, but they wring the greatest efficiency for cars and buses out of finite infrastructure.

In addition to fighting highway congestion with market discipline, the Met Council plan calls for boosting transit ridership to nearly 150 million annual trips by 2030, an increase of 60 million from current levels. To achieve that, it calls for development of more than a dozen of the most cost-effective new transit projects – commuter rail, light rail and bus rapid transit on dedicated highway lanes. It also acknowledges that an aging population will require 40 percent growth of the most expensive kind of transit – Americans With Disabilities Act-mandated dial-a-ride service.

Transit expansion, long short-changed in the Twin Cities area, will not come cheaply. The council’s plan estimates capital costs at about $5 billion over two decades, much of it to come from federal grants. Net transit operating costs are projected to rise from $280 million this year to about $500 million in 2030.
Over the years, of course, many billions more were spent on building the region’s highway network while transit went begging. As the metro area rebalances its transportation investments for the 21st century, transit will start to catch up.

Part of the money for this will come from a quarter-cent transit general sales tax adopted by five metro counties in 2008. Carver and Scott declined to do so. It may have made sense for those exurban areas to duck out of paying for transit improvements that may not reach their borders anytime soon. But it makes no sense, either, for them to insist on laying more far-flung pavement without offering a way to pay for it.

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