The lead article in the March 20 Star Tribune regarding where Minnesota’s transportation dollars go (“Spending on roads lopsided”) warrants a response. Little could have been written that more inaccurately reflects the nature of our state’s transportation system or does more damage to the effort to adequately fund it than this article.

It’s not that the article was factually wrong. It’s that it was wrong in principle — wrong in the base assumption that we can meaningfully divide our transportation system into “Greater Minnesota” vs. “metro” Minnesota.

There is almost nothing in the way our state’s transportation system operates that breaks down into exclusively rural or exclusively metro. Yes, you can draw a ring around the seven-county “metro area” and point out geographically where a road crosses that boundary, but that line has no bearing on how that road functions or whom it serves. And even a geographical delineation is arbitrary, given how hard it is to tell which is more “metro” — eastern Wright County or northern Anoka County.

The Star Tribune article’s underlying premise fails to appreciate the integrated nature of how our transportation systems operate. Let me give you an example. I grew up in a small town in central Minnesota that’s located along Hwy. 169. This was a two-lane highway when I lived there, and I remember as a teenager needing to plan ahead on Friday and Sunday nights to make sure I was on the right side of 169 early, because once the Twin Cities weekend lake traffic started, you couldn’t get back across. I complained constantly about how miserably inconvenient the impact of all that traffic was on my social life, until someone pointed out to me what all the traffic meant to the economy of our little county.

When 169 was finally expanded to four lanes through our community, it wasn’t to serve the traffic being generated there, it was to serve the needs of people from “the Cities” and the state’s interest in connecting them to recreational opportunities all over northern Minnesota. So does that make 169 a rural road or an urban road, and what sense does it make to say that the investment the state made in it counts exclusively as a rural benefit?

Other examples could be cited all across the state. When at-grade crossings were eliminated and access drives were cut off in Cannon Falls so that travel from the Twin Cities to Rochester could be safer and faster, was that a rural benefit only or did it also benefit the metro area? And it works the other way as well — improvements made in the metro area serve businesses and commuters all over the state.

That is the way our system works. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Attempting to categorize funding decisions as being “for” Greater Minnesota or “for” the metro reflects a complete lack of understanding regarding not only how our transportation system functions but also the role it plays in the economic and social well-being of our state. Instead of recognizing and valuing how transportation connects us — literally brings us together — the Star Tribune’s analysis creates a divisive bifurcation of that system, especially its headline conclusion that funding is “lopsided” in favor of one region over the other. Such a superficial conclusion serves only to pit us against each other, and to ultimately undermine all our efforts to cooperatively and reasonably identify the critical resources necessary to preserve and enhance transportation in our state as a whole.

I sincerely hope the transportation planners and decisionmakers in our state will do everything they can to prevent the Star Tribune’s misguided analysis from defining our approach to the important transportation issues we must address. We have suffered enough from the paralysis that comes with this kind of polarization.

 

Elwyn Tinklenberg, of Blaine, was commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation from 1999 to 2002.