Stuck in traffic? Blame it on the politicians

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2014 - 5:58 PM

Leadership needed on roads, bridges and Southwest light rail.

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Most Minnesotans recognize that a modern and efficient transportation system is essential to keep the state competitive in a globalized economy. Yet key leaders in state and local government continue to be unwilling to put political risks aside to make the necessary investment.

Highway gridlock, aging bridges and potholes were a problem even before this wicked winter. Now an election-year freeze is gripping the 2014 legislative session. The DFL, which controls both the executive and legislative branches of state government, appears to be taking an election-year pass on responsibly addressing this essential function of state government.

Twin Cities traffic increased 17 percent last year, meaning motorists waited 24.5 hours in traffic jams that will only grow worse with time, according to the global traffic-tracking company INRIX.

Already the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 20-Year State Highway Investment Plan estimates a $12 billion shortfall in meeting federal and state performance requirements. Half of the state’s highway pavement and 35 percent of state highway bridges are more than a half-century old.

Minnesota’s interstate pavement conditions rank 38th out of 50 states. Delaying solutions will only make fixes more expensive as deterioration and costs increase. Add up Greater Minnesota and metro-area transit needs, which have fallen far behind rival regions’ growing systems, and the gap is even larger.

Many nonelected leaders have recognized the responsibility to maintain infrastructure built by previous generations and to build for future generations. In particular, Move MN, a broad-based coalition of transit advocates, has provided a blueprint to move forward.

Bills reflecting this responsible approach have been introduced in the House and the Senate. And yet House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk told the Editorial Board this week that there is little prospect of progress this session. Like Thissen and Bakk, Gov. Mark Dayton seems focused on the November election without much regard for transportation and transit.

Both parties are responsible for the political paralysis. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, who also met with the Editorial Board this week, are even more reluctant than the DFL leaders to raise the necessary revenue to pay for roads, bridges and transit.

But state leaders were elected to lead. Making meaningful progress on infrastructure would go a long way toward proving to voters why the DFL deserved a majority in the first place, and why Dayton and DFL representatives deserve re-election.

The proposed $1.5 billion Southwest light-rail line would also bring economic benefits, both during construction and by more efficiently linking Minneapolis to the burgeoning, job-rich southwestern suburbs. But this project is imperiled after a resolution, unfortunately backed by Mayor Betsy Hodges, passed the Minneapolis City Council on Wednesday. It puts the city on the record as opposing digging tunnels in order to co-locate freight and light rail lines in the Kenilworth Corridor east of Cedar Lake. St. Louis Park leaders similarly have rejected a freight-rail reroute.

Adding to the complexity of the problem, the Twin Cities & Western Railroad has deemed the St. Louis Park reroute plan unsafe, and federal rules usually favor railroads in a dispute with local interests.

With the cities and the railroad at loggerheads, it’s highly unlikely that the federal government would grant the 50 percent funding that’s necessary to build the line. The project also faces a June 30 deadline from the County Transit Improvement Board. If an agreement is not in place, the board’s 30 percent share is at risk, too. What we need now are local and state leaders who will work in the best interests of the Twin Cities region and find a way to move forward with this critical project.

Without adequate progress on transportation and transit, Minnesota’s emerging economic recovery can erode as quickly as the state’s infrastructure. State and local leaders know the risks, but so far they have been unwilling to make the hard choices their offices demand.

  • TRANSPORTATION COSTS

    “Transportation problems don’t go away, they just get more expensive. So every year we wait, it will just cost us more. … Both at the state and federal levels, we have a fiscal cliff in transportation, and that’s why action needs to happen now.”

    REP. FRANK HORNSTEIN, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee

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