A giant step backward.
Perhaps that's the best description of this year's legislative outcome on transportation. Even more sobering are the prospects for meaningful progress next year, or anytime soon. That's because Minnesota's politicians continue to suffer chronic nearsightedness; they would rather stoke petty divisions than accomplish what's clearly needed for the state as a whole.
What's needed is a sound financial foundation for better roads statewide and a competitive transit system in the metro area. CNBC's recent ranking of Minnesota as the top state in the nation for business shows that a high-tax, high-quality governing model can succeed. But on transportation, a snapshot like that can be misleading. Yes, Minnesota has roads — more miles of roads than all but four other states. And the Twin Cities area has a transit system with rapidly growing demand. But the viability of each is doubtful without the revenue needed to maintain and expand.
There's wide agreement that transportation is critically short on money — at least $7 billion to $11 billion short over the next decade, and perhaps another $40 billion short in the decade after that if the state wants a competitive, world-class system. But the conversation rarely gets that far. It's pre-empted by a knee-jerk reaction against paying what's required to raise the money. Quickly, the entire issue becomes "a higher gas tax" without ever considering what it would buy, or without understanding that this unfortunate "politics of no" also cuts off the metro sales-tax revenue needed for transit.
Republicans who now boast about "stopping the gas tax" bring to mind Oscar Wilde's biting comment that some people know "the price of everything and the value of nothing." But DFLers have explaining to do, too. They squandered an opportunity to act in 2014 when they enjoyed a majority in both houses. And the tepid support offered by Gov. Mark Dayton and the current Minneapolis mayor and her predecessor for the Southwest light-rail line has seriously damaged transit's momentum. None of this is good news for the state's economy going forward.
Not all states are so paralyzed by transportation politics. Twelve — nine of them with Republican governors and legislatures — passed major packages this year. Seven of those nine Republican states raised or expanded the gas tax. It's not a perfect revenue source, to be sure. But without cannibalizing other government functions, a restructured gas tax is the fairest, most plausible way forward. It's interesting to note that while the Minnesota Legislature dithered over a few pennies per gallon, the market raised gasoline prices by a whopping 75 cents between January and June — with nary a ripple of complaint. Apparently, a market-driven price hike is OK even though the public gets nothing for it, but a slightly higher tax is abhorrent even if the public gets better roadways in return. Go figure.
More troubling than the partisan split is a growing metro-outstate divide and the myths that reinforce it. Many in Greater Minnesota are convinced that the metro "gets everything," while they get stuck with the bill. Rumors abound about "trolleys" crisscrossing the metro, paid for by rural folks with money that could otherwise go for rural roads. Local legislators know that that's poppycock but say little to correct it.
Truth is, there are no streetcars (trolleys) in the Twin Cities and only two light-rail segments. For those, Greater Minnesota residents paid — according to funding formulas — roughly 5 percent of construction costs and continue to cover roughly 12 percent of operating costs. But that's a bargain considering that metro taxpayers heavily subsidize outstate roads. Twin Cities taxpayers cover half the cost of major highways statewide despite having only 13 percent of the mileage. And each year they contribute $140 million more than they get back for local roads statewide.
As for transit stealing money from roads, it doesn't happen. The modes, for the most part, are funded from separate pots. In any case, road spending outstrips transit spending by 10-1.
The point here is not just to refute erroneous impressions, but to affirm that there's nothing wrong with these particular subsidies. Metro residents should happily contribute to roads that benefit agriculture, tourism, timber and mining — all mainstays of Minnesota's economy. In return, outstate residents should happily contribute — even in a small way — to urban transit projects that benefit a metro area that generates nearly 75 percent of the state's economic output.
Maybe it's unfashionable to say so, but we're all in this together. Minnesota's high ranking from CNBC's survey — and from dozens of others — hasn't come by accident, and hasn't come because Minnesotans picked petty fights with one another or obsessed over parochial fears and resentments. It came because Minnesotans, starting about 50 years ago, pulled together to transform a mediocre state into an exceptional one. To stay near the top, the state must make a down payment on a transportation system that won't be crumbling beneath our wheels.