Amid the incredible muck of this year’s presidential campaign, a prim and proper editorial raised its timid voice Oct. 13, earnestly bewailing alleged “metro-bashing campaigns” in Greater Minnesota. The editorial, “Transit support isn’t absent outstate,” claimed that a “survey” conducted by the U.S. Highway 14 Partnership — an advocacy group — shows “nearly two out of three” respondents supported a gas-tax increase, and 76 percent supported allowing metro area-only funding for light rail.
The editorial’s gentle spin didn’t sink to presidential depths — but a quick fact-check is needed.
The editorial admits the U.S. Highway 14 Partnership’s “survey call” is “not as reliable” as a “scientific poll.” Quite an understatement. The partnership’s “survey” was sent to its followers via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. That’s fine for a petition — not so much for a “survey.”
The editorial reports that “nearly two out of three” supported a gas-tax increase — but ignored the partnership’s question: “How much would you pay?” Only 18 percent would accept a 12-cent increase — Gov. Mark Dayton originally wanted an even higher 16-cent hike. The Star Tribune’s own March 2015 scientific poll on Dayton’s gas-tax plan reported (emphasis added): “opposition is fiercest … in outstate Minnesota, where about three out of five residents are against the plan.”
The editorial crowns this sturdy sandcastle with a “suspicion” that “resistance to light-rail expansion” comes from — my goodness — a “faulty assumption,” i.e., fear of “depriving Greater Minnesota of needed resources.”
Okay. Trigger warning! Time for some blunt, straight talk.
Here’s what I call the Light Rail Steamroller Coalition’s argument to rural Minnesota: “Look, a transit sales tax would be metro-only, so butt out.”
But they ignore an already existing heavy statewide subsidy of transit:
• The motor vehicle sales tax (2006 referendum-approved) sends 40 percent of its statewide revenue to transit, but 90 percent of that is metro. Greater Minnesota pays 48 percent of the tax, but gets only a fraction of the 60 percent that’s available for all roads and bridges projects statewide.
• The Metropolitan Council receives $52 million of state general funds for handicapped dial-a-ride services; that’s the fastest growing budget item, and it’s required by federal law.
Granted, Dayton’s 10-year plan would provide $2.9 billion of new money for “transit” — mostly giant light-rail boondoggles. But while that $2.9 billion is 25 percent of the total for all new roads and bridges spending statewide, today only about 3 percent of metro trips are by transit. That’s projected to increase by about 1 percent of total trips by 2040. The “progress” is barely measurable — Dayton’s plan is a dud even if it works!
Both rural legislators and voters understand: Minnesota can’t afford to waste billions to build an already-obsolete 19th-century rail system — not when we’re suddenly but obviously at the beginning of a 21st-century transportation revolution. That involves automated, on-demand vehicles.
This revolution isn’t “coming” — it’s here now.
Uber automated cars are serving paying customers in Pittsburgh (there are backup drivers). Mercedes Benz has been running its automated “Future Bus” on transit routes in Europe. Ford has announced it will begin mass production of on-demand automated vehicles in the year 2021 — no steering wheels, no pedals.
This is our transportation and transit future. We need to launch a legislative commission to study what we can accomplish by spending the proposed metro transit sales tax on 21st century bus-based and automated-driving alternatives to rail transit.
When we do that, here’s the biggest payoff of all for rural Minnesota: When automated driving transforms transit, it won’t be something just for big metros. Instead of a 90/10 percent metro/outstate split of transit spending, we can and should be providing revolutionary new transit systems for small cities and towns statewide. That’s a “one Minnesota” vision.
The first state to figure out how to do this will be positioned as a leader in an emerging global industrial sector.
Let’s make Minnesota that state.
Bob “Again” Carney Jr. is the GOP state Senate nominee in District 61.