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Some transportation advice -- from Utah?

Some transportation advice — from Utah?

The fallen I-35W bridge may serve best as a metaphor in motion. Its splashdown resembles perfectly the descending condition of our metropolitan transportation policy. Last week came another reminder of just how far into the abyss we've fallen. The CEO of Salt Lake City's Chamber of Commerce arrived to instruct us on the art of investing in a serious transit system. Take a deep breath. Utah is now telling Minnesota about the value of raising taxes for the benefit of the common good. Utah, which likes to think of itself as the nation's most conservative state, sent a missionary to try to convert Minnesota's reluctant business community to the radical idea of taking the long view.

"We fight with Idaho over which state gets to be the most conservative," Lane Beattie told his audience at a downtown Minneapolis hotel. Utahans are big on property rights and limited government, Beattie said. At the prospect of mass transit, well, "letting go of your car was only a little less frightening than letting go of your gun," he joked, admitting that he, too, "came late" to the notion of transit's importance to economic growth, as did many Republicans.

Republican is the default party in Utah. Republicans outnumber Democrats 4 to 1 in the Legislature. The governor is a Republican. Four of the state's five members of Congress are Republicans. Beattie himself was once named "National Republican of the Year." You can't get more Republican than the Utah business community, he said.

And yet, it was the Salt Lake Chamber that spearheaded last year's successful drive to add four light rail lines to Salt Lake City's existing two, and to open a new commuter rail corridor, paid for by hiking the regional sales tax a quarter-cent to raise $2.5 billion over 10 years. All this, despite the fact that Salt Lake City's traffic isn't nearly as bad as the Twin Cities.' (See accompanying chart.)

A pre-emptive strike
The Utah approach doesn't sound like something a truly conservative business community should follow, someone suggested. Isn't business supposed to oppose all taxes all the time?

Beattie seemed amused by the observation. There was an obvious need to act sooner rather than later, he said, before auto congestion got completely out of hand, before air pollution further damaged Utah's public health and its tourist economy. He mentioned the rising price of gasoline and the soaring cost of construction. Given those realities, he said it seemed prudent to offer an alternative to driving as quickly as possible. "If you get behind, it hurts you economically," he said. "We looked at the problem ... and applied business principles." The campaign's theme was essentially; "We can fix it now or fix it later," he said, and fixing it now made more sense.

Wow. Beattie had turned the topic of raising transit taxes into a pre-emptive strike against the enemy — which, in this case, was auto congestion, pollution and the worry that business would suffer if something weren't done quickly, even if it cost some money up front. That's essentially the Bush-Cheney foreign policy approach applied to a local problem.

The subtext to all of this was, of course, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's reluctance to support expansion of the Twin Cities transit system by using the mechanism that nearly all cities have used, and many chambers around the country have embraced: the sales tax. Beattie's trip was sponsored by transit advocates hoping to make that very point.

Cultural difference?
Erin Sexton, the Minnesota Chamber's transportation specialist, was the highest-ranking chamber official present. She said that Minnesota's business community did show leadership in last year's successful drive to shift new car sales tax money to transportation. She also acknowledged that more money is needed. "We have to figure out what works for our membership, and we haven't come to a conclusion about how to proceed," she said. "But we're not sitting on our hands."

In chatting with Beattie over breakfast, and then listening to his prepared remarks, two things hit me: In Salt Lake City the transit question was framed differently. The choice was whether to raise the property tax or the sales tax, not whether to raise some tax or no tax. (The difference, of course, is that with Minnesota's "no tax solution" you get precisely what you pay for: zip.)

The second thing I wondered about was a possible cultural difference between the Utah and Minnesota business communities. Do Utah business owners and executives tend to come from Utah, have strong family ties in Utah, and intend to retire in Utah? Do they consider Utah a special place (and here I alluded — tastefully I hoped — to the Mormon tradition of storing up for the future and holding family, geography and perpetuity in high regard)? And, conversely, were many Minnesota business leaders thinking mostly about quarterly earnings and retiring in Florida, and not very much about their Minnesota legacy?

Beattie said he had never thought about it that way. But he didn't dismiss the notion altogether.

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