State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, would rank high on any list of Minnesotans responsible for advancing a more holistic transportation policy over the last decade. But suddenly the political landscape has flipped over. Jim Oberstar, the House transportation chairman, will soon be gone from Congress, where Republicans now hold sway. A Democrat has won the Minnesota governor’s chair. And Republicans have taken over the State Legislature, a reversal that surprised almost everyone. I met Hornstein last week at a coffee shop in Northeast Minneapolis to talk about transportation’s future in the metro region. Here are excerpts:
Minnpost: What’s your reaction to Gov.-elect Dayton reappointing Tom Sorel as transportation commissioner?
Frank Hornstein: He’s a breath of fresh air at MnDOT and a good advocate for a multimodal approach to transportation. The only complaint I have is that he has embraced PRT (personal rapid transit) in a way that’s not helpful. It’s something suitable for an amusement park and a distraction from the bigger challenges we face.
MP: Recently you told me that dedicating Bus Rapid Transit on Hwy. 35W (last Saturday) might be the last bipartisan milestone in transportation for quite a while, and you were quite unhappy about that.
FH: BRT is an example of what can be accomplished when we work across the aisle. I met Rep. Holberg (Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, expected to chair the Ways and Means Committee) when I served on the Met Council; we worked together on a sewer expansion issue in Dakota County. Later we worked together in the Legislature on an idea I had for upgrading transit on 35W. It turned out that Dan McElroy (now the state’s economic development commissioner) had proposed a similar idea in 1994. This was really a Republican idea. So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Two years later we did a press conference promoting BRT that included Carol Molnau (former MnDOT commissioner) and R.T. Rybak (mayor of Minneapolis). How’s that for an unlikely coalition? And now we’ve got the beginnings of BRT in the corridor.
MP: But you expressed some pessimism about transit’s future.
FH: I do worry that this might be one of our last joint efforts for a while. I hope we can get bipartisan interest on Southwest LRT (downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie) and on the Gateway Corridor (BRT along I-94 from Woodbury to St. Paul). But I’m not optimistic in the short term. The environment in the Legislature is increasingly polarized, especially since the veto override of the transportation bill in 2008.
MP: But there’s a far broader appreciation now than there was a decade ago about how our mobility affects oil dependency, foreign policy, climate change, economic growth, government efficiency, you name it. The Twin Cities has made a lot of progress on that recognition.
FH: We have made progress in the last 10 years, and one election won’t reverse that. But there is a sense that when transit comes up in the State Legislature — and in Congress, too — that this shouldn’t be a function of government. There will be an attack on transit. I think Gov. Dayton will try to protect it, but without a Legislature that’s on board it will be a big challenge. We have to take a more realistic view of what we hope to accomplish in the next few years.
MP: You can always make a case that we can’t afford something. What about ideological opposition?
FH: Rep. Beard (Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, expected to chair the transportation committee) is on record as not believing that global warming is real. So that may bear on the work we hope to do because I’m very much on the other side of that question. We need to connect the dots. Seventy percent of our oil consumption is burned for transportation, and that burning accounts for a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. So it’s a huge chunk of what we need to do to address climate change. Now we have a new majority in the Legislature that doesn’t look at that with as much urgency.
MP: So do you and your bipartisan partners need to go back to square one in reframing the issue?
FH: Not quite, because the public is far ahead of elected officials. The suburban park-and-rides are very well used. People are using transit even in challenging economic times, and there’s a growing recognition that it’s important for economic development.
MP: But look at the Northstar numbers. After the first year, commuter rail is coming in at 20 percent below ridership projections.
FH: Some will use that to attack the system. But commuter rail is a new thing for our region. It’s not meant to be a solution for today only. It’s about the future and the absolute certainty that gas prices will go up. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in economics to figure out that global demand is outstripping global supply and that the cheap, easy oil has already been found — which is what the Deepwater Horizon tragedy illustrated. Reducing oil dependence has to be a part of any serious transportation policy.
MP: The interstate highway system didn’t show benefits until it began to form a system.
FH: That’s true. My biggest concern is that these early Northstar numbers will be used to attack the bus system, which is the basic workhorse of our transit network. Maintaining the core of that system is vital. It’s important to remember that the progress we’ve made has come under a Bush-Pawlenty scenario. So I hope we can continue to support buses while moving ahead on Southwest, which runs through a lot of Republican territory. What we really need is for the business community to step up. That would carry a lot of weight. The Chamber and other groups realize that if we’re going to compete in a global economy we have to have modern infrastructure.
MP: How much will Minnesota miss Jim Oberstar on these matters?
FH: A lot. His defeat puts the NLX (Northern Lights Express, Duluth-Minneapolis passenger rail) into doubt. Chip Cravaack (who defeated Oberstar) has come out against it. But there’s still strong support in the communities along the line.
MP: The same holds true for Chicago-Twin Cities high-speed rail, right? Wisconsin’s new governor is against that, and Wisconsin has turned away its federal money.
FH: Yes, elections have consequences. But there’s still strong support for it.
MP: What impact will demographic changes have on the transportation debate?
FH: We have the baby boom headed toward retirement. Not everyone will stop driving. But, as the population ages, we do have the need to provide more transportation choices. Another big change will be further volatility in oil prices. What will that mean for our economy, for inflation, for jobs, for our ability to compete internationally? Until we get our arms around this question we’re going to hurt ourselves. Now we have the former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan saying flat out that we went to war in Iraq for oil. That’s significant! Our oil dependence is a huge national security problem.
MP: What about the push for efficiency in land development?
FH: You can’t separate land use on this issue. We must begin to locate jobs, housing, schools and other destinations closer together. California is a state that recognizes that. They completed a study [PDF] recently saying they can save two years worth of oil imports just by changing their land-use patterns. So if we begin to reinvest in the cities and inner suburbs, we’ll save a lot of infrastructure and energy costs. Those who are fiscal conservatives should be looking at the considerable savings available in the jobs-housing-transportation-schools nexus. Trouble is all the rules in place now favor just the opposite. So we’ve got to find a way to reverse these incentives.
MP: You and Scott Dibble (DFL state senator from Minneapolis) tried to do that, but failed.
FH: We got changes in school siting, so now it’s possible to build new schools toward the center of town. And we’ve got the Met Council doing a study on how to promote more proximity in land use. Unfortunately, local governments viewed the changes we proposed as unfunded mandates. We think they’re just incentives to get cities to do the right things. We need to talk about it more.
MP: Peter Bell (outgoing Met Council chairman) said in this space last week that he would favor new published measurements of progress on infill development and vehicle miles traveled.
FH: There’s some resistance to vehicle miles traveled. People accuse us of trying to take away their cars. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. We’re just trying to measure how we’re doing in making our development patterns more cost effective. The electrification of our transportation options is another important angle on this, including electric and plug-in vehicles and the infrastructure to support that. This is not about taking cars away; it’s about providing more market choices. The problem is that the public sector continues to bankroll and subsidize the inefficient policy choices we made in the postwar years, 60 years ago, that favor spread-out development. Those policy choices continue to this day. But they are not taxpayer-friendly choices. Those policies have now run their course, and we have to update how we look at land development.