In 1971, when I first started covering state government, Minnesota’s transportation agency was still called the “Highway Department.”
That name accurately described the department’s chief interest and expertise — building roads and bridges. The department had an assistant commissioner for “transportation system planning,” but other modes of transportation were very much a secondary consideration.
In 1976, the Legislature renamed it the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and assigned it transportation-related responsibilities that previously had been performed by the former Department of Aeronautics, the State Planning Agency and the Public Service Department.
But large institutions are slow to change, and MnDOT regularly has been assailed by critics for focusing too much on roads and bridges, on concrete and asphalt. It was not until last year that the department established its Office of Multimodal Planning.
This office, headed by Mark Nelson, is now leading an effort to develop a 50-year vision for all forms of transportation in the state. Nelson and Commissioner Tom Sorel say this vision will serve as the foundation for the department’s 20-year multimodal transportation plan, as well as its investment plans for highways and other transportation modes.
The vision was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday in St. Paul that escaped the attention of all but a few reporters. Though members of the public were invited to testify via video conference at any of 12 locations around the state, just one person appeared to comment in the first 45 minutes of the hearing.
Sorel said some 8,000 Minnesotans had participated in earlier meetings on the document and that the hearing was “a continuation of our efforts to get public input.”
The vision, decidedly general in its content, emphasizes that transportation is not an end to itself. It seeks to maximize the state’s economic competitiveness, environmental health and quality of life.
It includes some lofty goals, such as:
• Maintaining an integrated network of streets, roads and highways that “collectively support freight, mass transit, personal vehicles and non-motorized transportation.”
• “Reliable and affordable transit options for people who cannot or choose not to operate a personal vehicle.”
• “Connected options to walk and bike for everyone choosing active forms of transportation.”
• “Zero deaths or serious injuries … in any form of transportation.
Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, applauds the planning effort, but questions whether the state can provide transit for everyone or eliminate transportation fatalities.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever have enough money to do that,” she says.
Most importantly, perhaps, the vision indicates that the department is preparing to adjust to changing realities. It describes nine “challenges and opportunities” in the decades ahead that will likely affect transportation needs as well as the state’s ability to meet them.
These forces include:
Aging population: As baby boomers retire and enter their 70s, 80s and 90s, transportation patterns are likely to change and many more seniors will “seek alternatives to driving their own vehicle.”
Increased urbanization: The trend of population shifting from rural areas to urban centers is likely to continue, increasing the demand “for more urban forms of transportation.”
Energy shifts: Rising fuel prices is likely to accelerate the trend toward more energy-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles, increasing the demand for electricity and recharging stations. While the vision doesn’t say so, this trend also would affect highway revenues from the existing motor fuel taxes.
Health care factors: To combat obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses, health advocates likely will continue to push for greater transportation investments that encourage active lifestyles, such as walking and biking.
Changing work environments: More businesses and jobs are likely to turn to telecommuting and working from home. Remote access to health care and other services also could increase – all of this affecting travel patterns and possibly easing congestion in urban areas.
Budget constraints: “For the foreseeable future, governments at all levels will experience ongoing budget challenges.”
Suffice it to say, the old Highway Department has come a long way. Today’s transportation planners are thinking about far more than roads and bridges.
“The department has been moving that way for a long time, so I don’t think this document represents a huge change,” says Donahoe. “But I think it’s great that the department is thinking long-term.”
If you wish to weigh in on the department’s vision, written comments will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 21.