There is a reason the Minnesota Constitution devotes a lengthy and separate section to the state highway system. It really is that central to our economy and quality of life.
The highway system was created by constitutional amendment in 1920 and refined in subsequent years to provide dedicated funding. State leaders worried that politics would trump good policy, so the Constitution is unusually specific about how your gas and vehicle taxes are to be collected and spent. They were right to be concerned: Besides our mobility, there are big dollars at stake, and lots of pork-barrel politics at play.
Large sums of money attract a lot of interested parties competing for a slice of the funding pie, lobbying to make it bigger but also to direct how and where our transportation dollars get spent.
As the 2014 legislative session revs up, keep an eye out for savvy PR campaigns like "Move MN" aimed at convincing legislators to enact new spending measures and launch new projects (e.g., bonding and taxes for light rail championed by the Metropolitan Council). The Minnesota Department of Transportation has a campaign of its own called "Minnesota GO." Tellingly, the logos and "visions" for both campaigns emphasize the environment, trains and bikes — while the economy, cars, roads and bridges take a middle or back seat.
And therein lies the problem.
Most of us think little of it, but on average we travel thousands of miles a year just doing our daily tasks. Most of us travel by car, and the goods and services we buy arrive by truck. According to MnDOT, state highways comprise less than 10 percent of the roads, but we travel 60 percent of our miles on them. Whether we travel by car or not, we all rely on the goods and services that demand efficient, modern highways.
While you are going about your daily life, the conversation about transportation has been captured by a loud and well-funded lobby. For lack of a better phrase, we'll call it "greenback urbanism."
"Greenback urbanism" is hoovering up federal, state and local tax dollars to support a downtown-centric economic model for our state. There has been a big shift to spending on trains and "amenities" like commuter bike lanes. The goal is to create density along train lines to bring growth and jobs to the cities.
This unproven model has a very high "cool factor," but we just don't have the density to support these trains. Bike lanes can create danger for riders and congestion for cars. We admire hardy bikers, but how many of us commute by bike?
Light rail is expensive to build, costing $80 million to $90 million per mile, compared with $10 million a mile to add a lane to an existing freeway — or $40 million per mile for a new four-lane freeway. Once built, trains operate at big losses that require taxpayer subsidies.
Minneapolis has only about 390,000 residents; St. Paul has 290,000. Promoters of greenback urbanism know they need more people living in and around the cities to support their vision.
That vision goes something like this: Build it and they will come. And if they don't, we will make them.
The greenback urbanites use their big voice in St. Paul and Washington to insist on a way of life that includes all modes of transit for their communities — with a major shift from cars and even commuter buses to trains, bikes and walking. Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently talked about growing Minneapolis to 450,000 people without putting a single additional car on the street.
Even if he gets his streetcars at $60 million per mile, is he going to give up his car? Are you?
Minneapolis is welcome to its vision. The question is how many of our transportation dollars it should get to support it.
Right now, MnDOT does not have a clear eye on the roads that serve the entire state. In particular, the roads connected to the main freeways are not being maintained or expanded, and there is limited expansion on the freeways that connect the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Duluth. MnDOT is spending more than 10 percent of our road funds on trendy "multi-modal networks." That sounds very hip until it's 15 below and you need to get to work on time. It is a confused and expensive approach, especially when you consider our harsh winters and hot summers.
With MnDOT projecting a $12 billion funding shortfall over 20 years, why would the state veer away from fully meeting our basic transportation needs by including billions for light-rail lines that operate for fewer people and hundreds of millions for bicycles and pedestrians?
"Move MN" is an appealing and expensive PR campaign that dovetails nicely with the Met Council's plan for transit-oriented housing. But like MnDOT's 20-year plan, these approaches are fundamentally flawed because they serve too few people. Besides, most Minnesotans don't want government and advocates spending our own money to re-engineer how or where we live.
We want MnDOT focused on getting the most people and goods from where they are to where they need to be, as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Given our limited but ample resources, this means providing well-maintained roads and bridges that serve cars, buses and trucks. That focus is the best way to grow a 21st-century economy that delivers jobs and opportunity throughout the state, along with new technologies that point the way to cleaner and better transportation.
Kim Crockett is the chief operating officer and David Strom is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, a nonprofit dedicated to building a culture of prosperity in Minnesota.