First, the good news. Today, the Port of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, kicks off the 2015 Great Lakes Shipping season with the departure of the S.S. John G. Munson and its 24,000 tons of iron ore. The start of the Duluth shipping season represents the region's de facto spring, a time when the industrialists definitively conclude that the sun will, indeed, approach the Northern Hemisphere sometime during Q2.
But this year's shipping season commencement comes with a great deal of uncertainty. Sure, there's plenty of iron ore (and other commodities like coal and grains) to move right now. The winter layup and stockpiles formed amid last fall's rail delays leaves plenty of work for the big ships in the near future.
Nevertheless, iron ore prices fell again late last week -- a new six-year low of $54.60 per ton. Keewatin Taconite announced a May shutdown due to the pricing pressures, and other Range mines will surely do the same if prices stay that low.
So today is a day to celebrate, but also a day to plan ahead for a rough-and-tumble 2015. As you see in the Port's press release, some anticipate that imports will more than make up for the decline in oil and ore shipments. If that holds true, we could see a -- wait for it -- sea change in how economic traffic moves through the region.
Later this morning, Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) will introduce his transportation proposal for this year's legislative session.
In the new Minnesota legislature -- now featuring a Republican House and a returning DFL Senate -- transportation was one of the issues some believed could unite the two parties. The new GOP majority in the House was secured with several wins in rural areas where even conservative voters tend to recognize the importance of the roads and bridges in that connect their area to markets. The DFL Senate loves roads and bridges. They are the notes and melodies of a Tom Bakk symphony.
But roads and bridges are expensive. The wider you make them and the faster you expect people to drive upon them, the more they cost. And sometimes new roads or bridges can simply stagger the mind. We've talked here often about the proposed Highway 53 bridge over the Rochleau Pit near Virginia, Minnesota, on the Iron Range.
In that case, an archaic agreement with a local mine requires the state to move Highway 53 to accommodate access to iron ore supplies. Because the cities affected -- Virginia and Eveleth -- are both mining towns, they are built right on top of mining activity. Thus, going around the mining land would bypass the existing business centers of both places. So, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, given few options, has recommended at $220-$240 million bridge over a mine pit.
It's a stunningly expensive solution to a problem we knew we had almost 50 years ago. Further, we don't know how transportation trends will change in 50 years. We're probably 10 years separated from continued automation in driving on American roads. Cars, transit and other forms of transportation are all changing faster than before.
Listen, when I was writing daily editorials at the Hibbing Daily Tribune in the early 2000s, I pumped a lot of ink into the idea that infrastructure was an expensive, boring, yet effective way to secure Greater Minnesota's economic strength. I haven't abandoned that idea, but I have certainly modified it. In a climate where bipartisan cooperation is so hard to orchestrate, and where technological and economic change happens so quickly, government must invest strategically and sustainably.
This was the topic of discussion on the Jan. 20 edition of Minnesota Public Radio's Daily Circuit, in which Tom Weber interviewed Charles Marohn of Strong Towns about the need for transportation spending reform. (Chuck is a friend of this blog, who we've mentioned before).
In short, Marohn, just like GOP and DFL politicians, acknowledges the need for transportation funding to maintain the roads and bridges of Minnesota. But he also thinks its political and engineering malpractice not to reform how we plan and build roads while funding the necessary repairs.
From last week's interview:
"When we're talking about transportation, we often treat it in one dimension: It's just roads and bridges and transit," [Marohn] said on The Daily Circuit Tuesday. "Transportation investments are economic developments; they are community development. They have a social implication, a cultural implication, political implications, but we just fund them out of one silo. We miss all of that nuance."
He's referring to the practice of big state highways that require local frontage roads and ancillary expenses that are incurred in populating those roads with retail and commercial space. Over time the maintenance costs go up, while the tax revenue from the resulting businesses go down. When cities see these two lines cross on the graph, the face financial crisis .... right around the time the state highway needs multi-million dollar repairs.
Will this be part of the conversation today when Gov. Dayton releases his plan? Or when House Republicans or Senate DFLers release theirs? Probably not. As Chuck points out, there is no short term gain from talking about this.
But I would argue that when Dayton, Senate and House version of a transportation plan fail to mesh, as they probably will, perhaps opposing lawmakers would find it easier to cooperate on longer term planning.
How about requiring compatibility with broadband lines and non-motorized vehicles in new construction? If some don't like mass transit as an option, perhaps they could agree on benchmarks where transit projects would be feasible?
Again, the goal here is not to dismiss Dayton's plan (I haven't seen it yet), nor any other. I don't expect people to suddenly agree about what to do on transportation. But it'd be nice if we could at least debate strategy, as opposed to a funding scrum ahead of yet another skirmish in an endless election cycle.
Earlier, I shared my personal and political analysis of the loss of former Rep. Jim Oberstar, the lion of northern Minnesota politics for almost four decades. Oberstar, 79, died in his sleep at his home in Maryland on May 3, 2014.
Here on the Iron Range, people's memories of Jim have been flowing in ever-growing streams since the news arrived Saturday morning. I'm fortunate enough to have a few, but there's one story I haven't put in writing yet.
In 2004, a friend and I joined Jim Oberstar's annual Mesabi Trail bike tour. An avid bicyclist who dedicated a great deal of his political capital to building bike paths, Oberstar liked to show off different stretches of his beloved hometown trail to media and constitutents. I was 24 and probably in the best shape of my life (not that this means much, but is nevertheless relevent to the story).
My friend and I showed up early to partake in the free snacks and sports drinks. We were dressed in shorts and t-shirts; prepared for a day of riding bike with a man pushing 70. Then Jim Oberstar showed up. Dressed head to toe in red, white and blue spandex and matching helmet, he smiled, shook hands and greeted the small crowd of bicyclists. We all saddled up on our bikes; mine with a rack on the back for carrying a cooler or novel, Oberstar's a 2,000-piece triumph of European design. And we were off.
The first mile consisted of Oberstar pedaling leisurly, chatting with various people along the way. Frankly, it was a slow pace, so my friend and I took off. We would catch them at the after party, we thought.
The afternoon wore on. We rode as hard as we could. As the wind and hills near Buhl slowed us down, we took a short rest. And though we hadn't seen Oberstar for miles, suddenly there he was. "Hello, gentlemen," said the septuagenarian. We jumped back on our bikes. We really had planned to finish first.
For the last stretch of the ride, about two miles, we watched as Jim Oberstar became smaller, not larger, on the horizon. We chased him with all our might; to no avail. As we were greeted at the finish, my friend and I muttered about Oberstar's superior bike; but the reality that two men in their physical prime had been stone cold whipped by a very old congressman was an immovable burden on our sweating egos.
I had thought that Jim Oberstar would live to be 100; he was just so healthy, not just for a man his age, but for anyone, really. But just as we don't get to decide when voters are going to change their minds, we don't decide our lifespans either. What we can control, though, is the sharing of memories like this, and the legecy of a man who always remembered where he was from, as he shaped a larger world.