All are not aboard for Minnesota's transportation bill

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2014 - 5:59 PM

Most critically, the Chamber of Commerce isn’t. Here’s its thinking — and mine.

Construction season has begun — in this photo, work is ongoing along Interstate 35E — and the fact that money is in the pipeline is one reason for opposition to a proposed transportation bill.

Photo: David Joles • Star Tribune,

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I wanted to find out why the Minnesota Legislature isn’t hard at work on a big transportation funding bill this session, given the need that Minnesotans can see on nearly every road and bus they take. So I called the office in charge on that issue — the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

OK, that’s not quite fair. The DFL-­controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton don’t need business blessing to do their duty. They didn’t appear to care what the chamber thought when they passed a $1 billion income tax increase last year or a minimum-wage increase this year.

But business unwillingness to join, let alone lead, a transportation funding parade is regularly cited by others in that line as a big reason their march stalled this year, after the state Senate passed a gas and metro sales tax increase last year. I asked the state chamber’s Laura Bordelon what gives.

She cited three things. One: “There’s money flowing.” Unlike in 2008, the last time the chamber backed a tax increase for transportation, a combination of federal money, a county-option wheelage tax enacted last year and clever borrowing have Minnesota preparing for a hefty $1.1 billion construction season this summer.

But: After this season, federal money becomes uncertain. After 2017, according to prudent Minnesota Department of Transportation policy, highway bonding can’t grow without more debt service to support it. Look ahead to 2030, and the experts forecast a $21.2 billion gap between transportation dollars expected and the cost of keeping the system performing as it does today. You want world-class? That’ll cost $30 billion or so more. (By comparison, the 2008 transportation bill raised $6.6 billion.)

Back to Bordelon for Reason Two: “MnDOT and the Met Council should be stretching the funds they’ve got. There needs to be an effort toward greater efficiency. We’re not seeing that.” But: MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle, former CEO of Jefferson Lines, has made efficiency a priority since he took that office 16 months ago. He established internal task forces to enhance financial, asset and project management, and has been meeting regularly with his old friends at the state chamber (he’s a former board member) in an effort to win trust.

Yet his efficiency drive can only go so far, Zelle said. “Without additional funding, in five years we will be less efficient because of the deterioration of our assets. It’s like allowing a roof to deteriorate on a house.”

Reason Three — which may be the most telling of the batch — becomes evident when Bordelon talks about how business owners are “still stinging over the tax increases of last session. It’s a much greater challenge [for them to support higher transportation taxes] this time, when they’ve just sustained that blow. That income tax increase is a hurdle.”

I take that to mean that the big business lobby would prefer to work this year on replacing Dayton and the House DFL majority with Republicans in the Nov. 4 election, not on transportation. If they succeed, they may fancy that they can get a rollback of the new 9.85 percent income tax rate on high-end earners in exchange for more transportation funding.

Clearly, Dayton and the House DFLers on the ballot don’t fear incurring the wrath of the state’s biggest business organization. They’ve already done that.

Rather, they fear the wrath of middle-class voters who remember DFL promises to spare them from tax increases. They might have been persuaded to face that wrath this year if they could counter it by saying: “Even the state Chamber of Commerce said we needed higher taxes for transportation!” Without that riposte available, they’re not ready to budge.

They’re also not willing to get things moving by separating transportation funding into smaller component parts and advancing them separately. House minority transportation lead Michael Beard says he’s among several Republicans who’d be willing to raise the gas tax a few pennies a year for a few consecutive years.

But the DFLers most likely to spurn that deal are the ones Beard calls “transinistas.” They won’t add one dime to transportation funding unless a goodly portion goes to transit as well as roads.

Gas taxes in Minnesota are constitutionally reserved for roads, and roads are everywhere. That makes gas tax increases easier to pass than transit subsidies. Transit backers have reason to worry that if bus and rail funding does not ride piggyback on a gas tax bill, it won’t move at all.

How is this parade ever going to get moving? Perversely, potholes help. It should be occurring to legislators — especially the ones who drive on tire-tearing Rice Street — that waiting for the system to deteriorate further isn’t a good idea.

One might opine that if this year’s politically insecure freshman DFLers become 2015’s sophomores, they’ll be more willing to support higher taxes for transportation. But then one should note that some newbies are more than willing already.

In the Senate last May 10, a boost in the gas tax and the transit-­dedicated metro sales tax emerged as an amendment sponsored by first-term Edina DFL Sen. Melisa Franzen, with an assist from first-term Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. In the House DFL caucus this spring, first-term Rep. JoAnn Ward of Woodbury is organizing a suburban caucus for which transportation betterment is a top priority.

Ward says she intends to reach out to the state chamber, but not to ask “Captain, may I?” “We don’t need the state chamber’s permission to move,” she insisted last week. “We need the state chamber because we’ll make a more informed decision if we’re all in the circle together. I want to help people be heard. But I won’t let naysayers determine the future.”

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