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Transportation Problems Can't Wait

August 14, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Conservatives are exceptionally good at politicizing emotion. From the headlong rush toward a half-trillion-dollar misadventure in Iraq to attacks on immigrants, gays and abortion rights, emotional appeals have brought to power conservatives whose bedrock ideology is no new taxes, no matter what, and shrinking government.

But now that Minnesotans' tears are being shed and their fears heightened over the deadly collapse of the Interstate Hwy. 35W river bridge, State Rep. Mark Buesgens tells us in his Aug. 10 commentary that this is no time to let emotions rule our collective response. It's a hypocritical ploy from a conservative legislator who has long prospered in the political marketplace of emotions. 

Along with strong emotions, however, an unexpected bridge collapse legitimately and reasonably raises concrete questions about safety, maintenance, design, construction and political funding. Elected officials, after all, propose, authorize and administer transportation funds. And the public has a right to know about those decisions and judge the results. That's democracy's ultimate check and balance.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has opened the door to long-overdue new revenue for the state's crumbling motorways, hinting at a willingness to increase the gasoline tax and perhaps other levies that are dedicated solely to roads and bridges. But he faces a growing pushback from his own party over his plans to call a prompt special legislative session to address Minnesota's transportation woes while the public's attention is focused in that direction.

Buesgens' call to wait until next year to take up the issue is a variation on the familiar refrain that the only good time to raise taxes is never.

If the government has a surplus, we must cut taxes. If there is an ensuing deficit, we can't raise taxes back up, because that would hurt an already weakened economy. If pressing needs arise and public safety is at stake, we must reprioritize government spending, robbing health care or education to fill the gap.

And, in an oft-repeated Pawlenty line echoed by Buesgens, the gas tax can't go up for the first time in 19 years - a period when every other state but Alaska and Georgia has raised its levy at the pump, some more than once - because folks are paying $2 (2005 veto version) or $3 (2007 version) a gallon at the pump.

This is nonsense when pump prices often fluctuate daily by far more than the nickel or dime bipartisan legislators proposed hiking the gas tax. There's another difference: When drivers dig deeper for those market increases in the price of fuel, not a penny goes to easing traffic congestion that costs Twin Cities commuters hundreds of dollars a year or to maintaining bridges whose structural integrity is a matter of life and death.

Facts, although they are stubborn things, haven't persuaded us to fix Minnesota's neglected transportation infrastructure, even as the funding shortfall approaches $2 billion a year. Maybe it's time to inject some good old-fashioned emotion into the debate.

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