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When Road Investments Pale, Focus on Access

April 18, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

It's hardly surprising that initiatives to raise Minnesota's less-than-average fuel tax have been abandoned at the Legislature, at least for this year. Like President Obama, Gov. Mark Dayton has been adamant in his opposition to increasing a levy for which public distaste far outweighs its actual pocketbook impact.

Besides, the last hike in Minnesota's impost at the pump, which took 20 years to achieve, fully phased up to 28½ cents a gallon just last July. With other, more significant, tax expansions on the table, waiting a while on this one seems prudent.

Remember, though, that per-gallon fuel levies don't rise with inflation and must be adjusted periodically to keep roads and bridges safe and sound. Glitches in the state's test of an alternative mileage fee reinforce the notion that we'll have to rely on the workhorse gas tax for years to come.

Meanwhile, two recent studies suggest that a stand-pat approach to motorway funding wouldn't be the worst policy at this time for most Minnesotans. (The exceptions could be rural residents; discussion below.)

The first study, by Randall Eberts of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, tracks strong rates of national economic return for highway investments from World War II until the early 1980s, and again in the 1990s. Since then, however, bang for the buck has plunged, even dipping below shrunken interest rates by 2009. David Levinson of the University of Minnesota summarizes Eberts' findings and provides the key comparison chart on his blog

"It appears that there is a convergence of thought that the U.S. highway system is maturing and that the system is no longer underbuilt," Eberts wrote. "However, that does not mean that funding for the highway system should be reduced. As a mature system, highways require maintenance, upgrading and replacement to provide the same level of services as before."

Levinson himself, the R.P. Braun/Center for Transportation Studies chair in transportation engineering at the U, has just issued another report showing that the Twin Cities, home to more than half of Minnesota's population, already enjoy the nation's fifth-best metropolitan access to jobs by automobile. What's more the region's average accessibility grew more than 30 percent from 1990 to 2010, while it actually declined in two-thirds of the other 50 biggest U.S. metros.

Levinson is a leading exponent of accessibility, defined as the ease of reaching valued destinations, rather than mobility and traffic congestion delays as a true measure of a transportation system's effectiveness. The most accessible cities in America, he calculated, are some of the largest, with Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago taking the top four spots ahead of  No. 5 Minneapolis-St. Paul.

"Travelers in many of these cities have the ability to reach their desired destinations, such as shopping, jobs and recreation, in a reasonable amount of time despite congestion and slower travel because these cities have greater density of activities," he said. "In short, these travelers enjoy better access to destinations."

Levinson added that "there are two ways for cities to improve accessibility -- by making transportation faster and more direct or increasing the density of activities, such as locating jobs closer together and closer to workers. While neither of these things can be shifted overnight, they can make a significant impact over the long term."

Freeway travel in the Twin Cities has been improved in recent years by some of Levinson's prescriptions: widening bottlenecks, redesigning gridlocked interchanges, congestion tolling, ramp meters. But the Metropolitan Council foresees little addition of Twin Cities highway lanes or new right-of-way for the next two decades. Instead, it is focusing on long-neglected transit improvements, which promote job density and heightened worker access far more than new pavement.

According to Levinson, better metropolitan access reduces auto dependence and commute times while increasing average wages and home values.

To be sure, what's missing from these analyses is rural areas' need for good highway connections over miles of countryside. One glaring example is Hwy. 14, still just two narrow, crash-riddled lanes of vital economic linkage through much of southern Minnesota's corn and soybean belt. Levinson's study doesn't address that issue at all, and Eberts' macroeconomic findings may not apply in such cases.

Minnesota's last gas tax hike went a long way toward shoring up wobbly bridges across the state and improving Twin Cities highways. By all measures, those assets are now well ahead of the national curve. Maybe the next increase, constitutionally dedicated to highway purposes, should focus on the state's rural corridors of commerce.

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