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In seeking to cut transit, Legislature is out of step with new trends

Bills pending in the House would prohibit state or local governments from applying or accepting federal money for rail projects.
Bills pending in the House would prohibit state or local governments from applying or accepting federal money for rail projects.

Budgets aren’t just for cutting, not even in austere times. They’re also for anticipating the kind of world in which you expect to operate in the years ahead.

A wheelchair manufacturer might need to impose layoffs or eliminate its dividend to get through a rough patch, for example. But it knows that to survive the long haul it must prepare for an aging population that will soon demand more wheelchairs.

The same is true for governments and transportation. A big deficit might prompt a slowdown in highway building for a few years. But any state worth its road salt knows two things:

• It must have a transportation system ready to compete for new jobs and new private investment as the economy recovers.

• It must have a system that reflects big changes coming to the transportation, housing and land-development markets.

In other words, it must be careful not to assume that the new post-recession transportation market will be exactly like the old one. It must take into account sweeping global changes that are driving the market in a new direction. Among those changes: political instability in oil-producing regions likely to prompt ever higher gasoline prices; rising atmospheric temperatures probably due to the excess burning of carbon fuels; and a growing understanding that both governments and households must operate more efficiently in order to thrive against China, India and other global competitors.

Pushing the reset button
This emerging market is especially apparent in the big metropolitan areas that drive the U.S. economy: greater demand for compact lifestyles that include smaller homes closer to jobs and shopping, and growing demand for more efficient transportation options, especially transit and walking. In other words, the market has pushed the reset button. The 1950s-era of relying solely on long-distance driving and spacious living is being replaced by an era that offers more lifestyle options. Or, from government’s standpoint, an era in which massive housing and highway subsidies were used to promote solo driving and maximum land consumption is being replaced by an era which it emphasizes balance, choice and efficiency.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Legislature seems out of step with these trends. You see it most clearly in the House transportation bill that passed last week.

The bill pushed by Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, eliminates all general fund money for transit ($129 million in the last biennium), suggesting instead raids on three funds: proceeds from local-option sales taxes set aside for new lines, grants used by the Livable Communities program to help local governments retrofit communities to the new real-estate market, and funds set aside for right-of-way acquisition. The overall impact would be to cut transit operating funding by about 20 percent. Moreover, if county sales-tax money were shifted, the Southwest line, scheduled to open in 2017, would lose its place in line for federal funding and be delayed for perhaps a decade.

Slashing transit
Other bills pending in the House (but not a part of the main bill) would suspend construction of the Central Corridor light rail line, eliminate the authority of county rail authorities to levy property taxes, and prohibit state or local governments from applying or accepting federal money for rail projects until all roads and bridges meet certain performance targets.

The Senate, also controlled by Republicans, passed on Monday a less extreme bill that would cut transit operations by $32 million over the next two years. Differences will be reconciled in a conference committee and subject to a possible veto by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton or left to be negotiated as part of a unified budget deal at the end of the session.

Until then, the House version, especially, will continue to draw bad reviews from a coalition of transit advocates, environmentalists and business leaders.

‘Bad idea every day’
Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh told legislative leaders that at its extreme the House bill could force fares to rise by as much as $4 a ride or reduce regular-route service by as much as 45 percent, prompting layoffs of as many as 550 drivers and related staff. She called the potential impact “devastating” [PDF], not only to bus and train riders but to the metro and state economy. Eighty percent of riders use transit to go to jobs or school, she estimated. Forcing 22 million transit commuters into cars would cause further congestion on metro roadways and harm business and competitiveness.

“This is all dressed up as a way to help solve the budget problem, but what they’re really trying to do is to destroy the capacity of this region to move forward on transit,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, chair of the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB). “It’s like a new bad idea every day.”

Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that some Republican legislators fail to understand that transit is important to business. “Just as we emphasize jobs and work force it makes no sense to take away transit service from people who use it for work and school and put them into cars. There’s a greater need for education on this issue; how does cutting transit help with congesting or help with efficiently moving employees and goods through the region? Cutting transit means that costs for businesses go up. Transit is the circulatory system for our region, and we need it to attract talented young people to move here and stay here.”

Beard makes an impact
The House bill represents Beard’s first foray into the top levels of state transportation policy, and he has made a big impact. During the Pawlenty years, Republicans came to reluctantly embrace transit — even rail transit — as a legitimate part of the transportation system. Pawlenty presided over the opening of the Hiawatha and Northstar lines, and his Met Council chairman, Peter Bell, worked tirelessly to keep the Central line on track. Upon leaving office, Bell said that transit was no longer an issue that deeply divided the parties. But he may have been wrong.

Beard has brought ideology back into the conversation. From his viewpoint, government should play an extremely limited role in people’s lives.

“Government is divinely ordained to provide order and security and maximize personal freedoms,” he told the Shakopee Valley News in 2006. “… Government should only do for people things they shouldn’t do for themselves or can’t do reasonably.”

One of the reasonable things people can do is to drive cars, he argued while explaining his bill on March 28. (See video.) Government steps in with transit to get “people to work, to school, to the dentist, wherever they need to go if they can’t afford to have their own car or if for reasons beyond their control they can’t have a car and drive themselves.”

In denial?
It’s a revival of the argument that transit ought to be seen as a social service rather than a choice that allows people the option of more efficient and sustainable lifestyles. I thought that the latter side had won the day, but apparently I was wrong. Beard’s view, now prominent again in the Legislature, warrants a fuller discussion.

Change never comes easily. The post-1945 era of automobile primacy, cheap gasoline and spacious living will find it hard to share the stage with a parallel system that emphasizes transit, walking and compact communities. It’s easy to drift into denial that the world has changed, that the new transportation market will be different from the old one, that more efficient ways of arranging ourselves and moving between our destinations must be found, that our prosperity depends on our ability to compete and change our old ways.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/06/2011 - 09:19 am.

    You seem to forget that the current iteration of Republicans sees any mode of conveyance that allows unrelated individuals to travel in the same direction at the same time within the same container, smacks of socialism, social engineering, central planning and infringement upon the essential God-given unique freedoms of Americans. If the riders were real Americans they would get their own car and join the renewed gridlock on the highways.

    And for God’s sake, don’t talk about efficiency, costs of highways, effects of gas burning, dependency on foreign oil, etc., etc. Those are just liberal myths.

    Because, as we all know, in the future we will all be driving disposable motorcycles. The ultimate in rugged individualism.

  2. Submitted by Timothy Santiago on 04/06/2011 - 11:43 am.

    “Government is divinely ordained to provide order and security and maximize personal freedoms, … Government should only do for people things they shouldn’t do for themselves or can’t do reasonably.”

    Building off of Beard’s quote… Just like building new highways, enhancing transitways, expanding bicycle networks, and encouraging livable communities are all things that the individual is incapable of doing on their own, and where the government can step in, alone or with a private/public partnership, to create communities served by a transportation system that truly maximize personal freedoms. Households spend on average 18 cents of every dollar on transportation. Some families have no choice but to have two cars. A family with two cars would have thousands of dollars of additional income each year if they had more options and could live with one vehicle.

    The metro is falling behind peer cities like Denver, Dallas, and Seattle in building a balanced transportation system for the 21st century. The vindictive measures by the Republican ring to cut funding to services in the core cities will prove harmful to the suburbs in the long run. Without strong central urban areas, the suburbs are sealing their own fate in the years ahead as jobs and talent move elsewhere as the economy continues to recover.

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 04/06/2011 - 05:10 pm.

    Actually in my view if government was divinely ordained perhaps to provide order and security perhaps we need to depend less on oil and especially foreign oil. That would also maximize our personal freedom having more options.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/06/2011 - 07:53 pm.

    Neal and Timothy (#1 and #2) are on-target, but too gentle.

    Mr. Beard’s approach places ideological orthodoxy ahead of every other consideration, ranging from economic development to common sense to economic and/or social justice. People like Michael Beard are wrong about this issue on virtually every level. Transit gives people options, something a genuine believer in individual freedom ought to embrace rather than denigrate. Strangling transit projects, especially those that are already under way, will strangle economic development in the Twin Cities, and if businesses are worrying about competition from Seattle, Denver, Portland, etc., they ought to be holding Mr. Beard’s feet to the fire at this very moment, because he’s all but guaranteeing that new business and employment will go elsewhere.

    Moreover, by including the language about prohibiting acceptance of federal money for transit unless/until road projects meet his standards, Mr. Beard makes it clear that he’s in the pocket of oil and automobile interests. There aren’t enough dollars in the state to bring every bridge and road up to “like new” standards, unless every other program, from law enforcement to public health to farm assistance, is virtually eliminated.

    We’re going to be seeing $4 gasoline again this summer, and prices are sure to go higher as instability in the Middle East couples with rampant speculation to artificially drive prices through the proverbial roof. Those of us not in the state’s top 5 percent of incomes are going to be hard-pressed to get back and forth to work and school and even grocery-shopping as fuel prices escalate unless there are transit alternatives available. Mr. Beard would like to see to it that there are no such alternatives.

    “Drive or die,” apparently.

    As Harold Meyerson wrote in a recent piece, Republicans have never liked the social contract enacted under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, supported as it is by a kind of dual logic that’s both humanitarian and Keynesian. Said Meyerson, “They argue that a laissez faire economy can produce even greater or at least similar levels of prosperity and economic security, despite a striking lack of historical or economic data to back up this contention. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made that claim Tuesday in presenting his budget proposal. But Ryan’s pieties notwithstanding, his budget is a prescription for diminishing prosperity and security, a road map, in fact, for national decline.” I’ll only add that the current thinking and policy proposals on the part of Republicans in St. Paul, including Mr. Beard’s ill-advised bill, constitute a similar prescription for the decline of Minnesota as a state, and the Twin Cities – the economic engine of the state – as a metropolitan region.

    The current iteration of the Republican party doesn’t serve the interests of the state, its people, or even its businesses. It serves a kind of warped ideological purity that will wreak havoc on the economy, trample people’s rights, and bring us closer to fascism and genuine poverty than we’ve been since the Great Depression. Their overriding theme is to make government smaller, whether that serves the interests of the larger society or not, and even if making the government smaller actually makes for less efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Small, weak and inefficient government serves the interests of the wealthy and the connected, not the public. Reagan Democrats who’ve made a habit of voting for Republicans in recent years because of social issues have been making some of the worst mistakes of their lives in the voting booth.

  5. Submitted by David Peterson on 04/06/2011 - 08:17 pm.

    Thanks, Steve. Sometimes I get so frustrated with all the left/right political battles this term. It seems like both sides are just so far apart, no one is willing to meet in the middle.

    I am always for multi-modal transportation. I think Minneapolis is getting better and better. For bikes and cars, it is world class, for bus/trains, it has a ways to go, but it certainly improving. I encourage friends who are foreign to transit to give riding the bus a try and I am always up for a bike ride instead of a car ride.

    I think these people like Beard, who are clearly out of touch with reality, have no ideas what freedoms really mean. People like Beard still think the rest of the world is the third world. In reality, we have to compete with our peer cities in the US, and we have to compete with the rest of the world in terms of brain drain. I graduate from the U of M and a large number of my brightest peers have moved to SF, Seattle, and abroad because they are getting tired of this transit bad, car good, lifestyle and want options. I was lucky enough to be able to limit my job search to an area (U of M) where I do have many options to get to work every day as well as choosing to live in Minneapolis where I have many options.

    We have made SO much progress in the last ten years with opening up to transit, what can we do to stop fools like Mike Beard?

  6. Submitted by donald maxwell on 04/06/2011 - 08:36 pm.

    If there is any consistency in Rep Beard’s thinking at all, he is obliged to bring in a bill to prevent the government from imposing taxes on fuel just to build public highways. Has he opposed all those government-imposed highways around Shakopee? No? I bet he has some cockamamie excuse about reasonableness. Shame on him.

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/07/2011 - 07:29 am.

    David (#9)

    …It seems like both sides are just so far apart, no one is willing to meet in the middle…

    The problem is that there is no meeting place in the middle when compromise is publicly proclaimed to be a dirty word.

    When you are defending your God and his plans as you know them against the godless liberal humanist hordes, how can you compromise?

    After all, Jesus would have driven a Hummer, flipping the bird at the losers waiting for the bus…

  8. Submitted by Zach Pasdoe on 04/07/2011 - 03:27 pm.

    I too have many friends and former colleagues who have left or are leaving Minneapolis – St. Paul for other cities / metros due to their unhappiness with numerous issues. From my experiences, cities like Denver, Portland, and Seattle are no longer our peers as they have embraced the changes needed to attract others and have essentially left the Twin Cities behind. Twin Cities leaders now have to focus on the up-and-coming metros like Charlotte, NC and Austin. BTW, my gf and I are tired of the vibe here so we have decided to move to Denver. Way to go MPLS., you just lost two more residents.

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/07/2011 - 05:21 pm.

    It serves a kind of warped ideological purity that will wreak havoc on the economy, trample people’s rights, and bring us closer to fascism and genuine poverty than we’ve been since the Great Depression

    That about sum it up real well. There is no point in engaging in a debate with the well described attitude. The people need it out. I’m living in the Handmaiden’s Tale.

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