Minnesota needs campaign for transportation funding

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2013 - 6:15 PM

Dayton, DFL leaders need to create citizen and political consensus.

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LRV being towed through the intersection of 11th and Cedar, heading south on the Cedar Street bridge over Interstate 94 toward the Tenth Street Station in St. Paul.

Photo: ., Central Corridor LRT Project

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The 2013 Legislature wrapped up its session last week. The 2014 session begins next Feb. 25. So it’s time to begin the campaign.

No, not the electoral campaign — that will come soon enough (probably too soon). Rather, what’s needed now is a statewide push to build citizen and political consensus for investment in transportation funding.

The 2013 legislative session failed to get the job done. Sure, there was some last-minute success, including $37 million in general fund money toward the state’s 10 percent share of the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line. (Added to previous commitments, $44 million has now been dedicated to the state’s $125 million share. But $81 million is still needed to stay in the federal funding queue.) Additionally, the state shored up its share of transit operating costs.

But this was mostly a status quo session for transportation at a time when rival regions are all aboard with making strategic investments. What was accomplished falls far short of Gov. Mark Dayton’s bold proposal to implement a 20-year program to build and maintain transit in the metro area, funded by a half-cent sales tax in seven metro counties (while keeping an existing quarter-cent sales tax in five metro counties).

Dayton’s data-driven plan would have raised up to $318 million in new transit-dedicated revenue in the next biennium and up to $472.6 million in the 2016-17 biennium. The plan would have addressed shortfalls for current commitments, and it would have dramatically expanded the transit network, adding bus routes and hours of service and increasing frequency.

Over the next 20 years, a more-integrated system would have been built, including Southwest but also Bottineau light rail, the Interstate 35W South bus rapid transit (BRT) line, the east-metro Gateway line (either light rail or BRT), up to a dozen arterial BRT or streetcar corridors and up to five potential highway BRT corridors.

An estimated $6 billion to $10 billion return on investment would have been realized, based on reduced travel times, lower emissions, lower vehicle operating costs, lower shipping expenses and more.

But that did not come to pass. Political realities meant the plan could not be enacted in the House or Senate without commensurate investment in the state’s roads and bridges.

There were enough state senators who realized that “this is how we pay for things” — in the words of Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina — to boldly vote to raise the gas tax by 2.5 cents in the 2014-15 biennium and another 2.5 cents in 2016-17. This created Senate consensus also to pass the transit plan. But Dayton and the House balked. The outcome wasn’t that much different from what it might have been had the Legislature still been in GOP hands.

DFL majorities were elected to break that logjam. The party needs to lead. Dayton, House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk must make building a transportation consensus a top priority.

Coalitions have been built for far less popular purposes — such as the Vikings stadium, the Mayo Clinic, Mall of America and 3M, among other corporate entities — not to mention for same-sex marriage. Polls indicated broad-based, statewide support for expanding transit. Already, one of the most-challenging roadblocks had been overcome: business support. Dayton’s plan had been endorsed by both the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce.

Labor needs to show similar zeal. Unions poured energy into the drive to organize state-subsidized child-care providers when they would have been better served by rallying around transportation funding. Most of the projects would be a boost for union workers.

To be sure, a gas tax, or any other revenue-raiser, will be demonized by GOP candidates in 2014, when Dayton and members of the House (unlike the Senate) will be seeking re-election. Recent record gas prices intensify the controversy. But a solid argument can be made that volatile gas prices are precisely why it’s the right time to invest in transit. And that investment will not happen unless the whole state benefits. Thus, a comprehensive campaign is needed.

The DFL has a once-in-a-generation mandate to govern. It shouldn’t turn timid out of fear of losing its majority. Indeed, evading responsibility and missing this opportunity holds a higher chance of dissatisfying Minnesota voters.

  • ‘MISSED OPPORTUNITY’

    “This is a huge missed opportunity … because the needs are great, and I think there is a lot of support in the Legislature, both in the House and the Senate, for doing a big transportation package. So we are going to have to redouble our efforts and refocus for next year.”

    Rep. FRANK HORNSTEIN, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee

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