New federal highway bill: Truth and consequences for Minnesota

New federal highway bill: Truth and consequences for Minnesota

About the best thing anybody can say is that Congress finally managed to pass new transportation legislation — albeit 1,000 days after the previous law expired. Last Friday President Obama signed it into law. Christened the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” act or MAP-21 (seriously, that’s what it’s called), the law provides funding for highways, roads, transit, bike paths and walkways.

“The greatest benefit is that it gives us stability for two years,” says former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar who headed the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure before his defeat in 2010.

If Congress hadn’t passed something, the Federal Highway Administration would have seen its coffers so depleted that it would have to cut funding to state departments of transportation. That, Oberstar says, would have shut down projects all over the country, to horrible economic effect.

So we can breathe a sigh of relief. And hope that the U.S. Department of Transportation is correct in its estimate that the measure will “create and sustain” 2.9 million jobs nationwide, 28,100 in Minnesota.

But what else hath Congress wrought? The legislation is fraught with acronyms and complicated mumbo-jumbo that some analysts are still poring over. But here are the high (or major) points:

No change in dough

Congress allocated about the same level of funding as in previous legislation, some $127 billion with a little extra packed in for inflation; Minnesota stands to collect a $700 million chunk of that. The Highway Trust Fund supplies most of the money, courtesy of your Federal gas tax (18.4 cents a gallon). But because cars have become more fuel-efficient, the fund’s revenues are declining, and Congress had to scrounge about $19 billion from the government’s general revenues to pay for MAP-21.

“Nobody can now argue with a straight face that highways pay for themselves,” says James Erkel, director of the Land Use and Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Danger ahead

“The law keeps the money flowing, but it doesn’t grapple with the long-term funding problem,” says Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.”There was no willingness to raise the gas tax” to boost the revenues of the Highway Trust Fund. (Minnesota increased its own gas tax a couple of years ago, and it ticked up a half penny at the start of July.)

Oberstar points out that when the Highway Trust Fund started up in the Eisenhower administration, the gas tax was 3 cents, or 10 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas, and, he says, “Nobody complained.” A proposal to hike the federal gas tax to, say, 37 cents would these days set off a firestorm. With no increase in the federal tax, the Congressional Budget Office predicts the fund will be insolvent by 2015.Once again, we hurtle toward a fiscal cliff.

No rest for the weary

In the past, transportation legislation lasted for six years. MAP-21 expires in just 27 months or 837 days. Unless Congress wants to transportation funding to stagger along on continuing resolutions as it did for the past 1,000 days, it will have to start working on a new bill in the next 20 minutes. The law’s short term also makes it difficult to get projects off the ground — even biking and walking programs, says Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit that works on transit funding.

And the winner?

Highways still gobble 80 percent of the money, a portion that has not changed since, well, practically forever. You’d think that Congress would have boosted the mass transit portion a bit since an increasing number of people seem to want to use it. Last year saw the highest ridership in decades, 10.4 billion trips, 264,000 trips a day in Minneapolis up 3.6 percent from last year.

A U.S. Public Interest Research Group report found that between 2001 and 2009, the average (car) vehicle miles traveled by young people, those aged 16 to 34, dropped by close to 25 percent. Meanwhile, transit ridership among the same group increased. “We’re very disappointed with this bill,” says Thoman. “It does not meet the transportation needs of a changing America.”

Oberstar says that if funding for transit stays flat, the total for the next six years will be about $64 billion. In 2009, he says, funding needed to be at $99 billion to bring the nation to the point where 10 percent of riders used mass transit daily. If that happened, we would reduce foreign oil consumption by 40 percent.

Tax credits for transit riders — sigh

In 2012, employers may provide workers with up to $125 per month in tax-free transit and vanpool benefits (down from $230 per month in 2011). Drivers, however, can collect as much as $365 a month for parking. Congress should have at least edged up the transit benefit to make commuting by train or bus more competitive.

Get out the duct tape and the safety pins

Previous laws required states to spend at least 32 percent of their federal dollars on repairs. That stricture is now gone. Some in Congress have hailed the change because it allows localities to choose how they want to spend the money. Presumably state transportation departments would like to keep everything from falling apart, but, says Munnich: “Politically, it’s easier to postpone repairs. Repairs don’t always show. So they may suffer if money isn’t specifically designated.”

MNDOT does have a “fix-it-first” policy. “Now we’ll see if they’re true to their word,” says Erkel.

Bikers and pedestrians: less money for you

Travel Enhancement programs, which were used to create bikeways, safe pedestrian walkways and recreational trails, were smushed into one giant program called Transportation Alternatives. Then Congress cut funds by a third; so they’ll now receive only about 2 percent of the bill’s funds.

Thoman, whose group advocates for more biking and walking, says that the allocation is insufficient because 10 percent of road fatalities are bikers and pedestrians. “When we have an obesity epidemic, an aging population and worsening air quality, Congress should be making biking and walking safer,” she says.

Further, a state can opt out of the program entirely and use the funds to repair damage caused by natural disasters. This money should put on a scarf and overcoat because it may be headed for Duluth.

High-speed rail? Fuhgeddaboudit

Fastasies that some time in the next 10 years we would be speeding to Chicago for the weekend on the U.S. version of a bullet train will remain nothing more than that. Congress didn’t even discuss the idea. Too bad. Brazil, India, China, Iran and several other countries have lines under development. Unless you’re planning on a Rio-Sao Paulo commute, keep those airline miles piling up.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Timothy Santiago on 07/13/2012 - 09:10 am.

    Does Ms Harris or her teenage daughter write these articles?

    Is this news or opinion? I can’t tell. The tone of this article, like many of Ms Harris’ before, carry undertones of teenage snarkiness. There are some very interesting points that she touches on, but the issues fail to overcome the desire to inject cynicism where good journalism should be. I’m happy to see that MinnPost attempts to address serious planning issues in the Twin Cities, but I wish Ms Harris would take these topics a little more seriously.

    • Submitted by Justin G on 01/10/2013 - 02:04 pm.


      I agree regarding the tone of this article.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 07/13/2012 - 02:36 pm.

      Objective journalism

      Journalism is supposed to be objective. Given the state of things, if you’re not being cynical, you’re not being objective. In this case I find Ms Harris’ snark quite appropriate, in contrast to other MinnPost writers who, in the name of journalistic “objectivity,” tie themselves into knots trying to treat seriously and with equanimity political arguments, positions and actions that are objectively insincere and unworthy of respect.

  2. Submitted by Nancy Beach on 07/13/2012 - 12:59 pm.

    Funding for mass transit.

    Ms. Harris says, “You’d think that Congress would have boosted the mass transit portion…” No, I wouldn’t, because the Congress is bought and paid for by the Koch Bros and other oil interests who do not want any kind of mass transit getting in the way of their oil profits.

  3. Submitted by Marlys Harris on 07/13/2012 - 01:08 pm.


    I wish I did have a teenage daughter. I only have grown-up guy children (26 and north of 35), and I taught THEM how to be snarky. I guess snarkiness is part of my style, and I apologize if it offends. In my defense, however, a column is supposed to have a point of view. For proof, here’s a definition of “columnist” from the Columbia Encyclopedia:

    Columnist, the writer of an essay appearing regularly in a newspaper or periodical, usually under a constant heading. Although originally humorous, the column in many cases has supplanted the editorial for authoritative opinions on world problems. Usually independent of the policy of the publication, the columnist is allowed to criticize political and social institutions as well as persons.

    • Submitted by Nick Magrino on 07/13/2012 - 03:54 pm.

      I mean

      At least one sustaining member likes the snarkiness. If someone can’t read sarcasm on the Internet, that’s their issue.

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/13/2012 - 03:06 pm.

    While I don’t always agree with Ms. Harris’s urban issues

    I will certainly defend her right to be snarky.

    Since this bill is 1000 days “over due” and is pretty much the same as it would have been on day 1 since is basically a continuing resolution you kind of have to ask yourself who is to blame for in efficiency in government. All the staff was still working – construction projects got stretched, not an effective way to run a government with congress voting on what to do with basically “retained capital.”

    Here is the government trying to run like a business putting what is essentially depreciation into a capital fund for future expenditures. How many businesses have, or let me be clearer claim depreciation on their capital of less than 10%.

    How about if we do the same thing. Tie the “use taxes” in this case fuel taxes to the depreciation percentage businesses claim on their taxes. While this it doesn’t cover alternative transportation but pretty much the only people who don’t pay their way are bikers – who are the world’s biggest freeloaders with separate pathways (snark, snark) it seems like putting the government on a business basis. Now who can complain about that, if it is good enough for business capital it should be good for public capital.

    There is of course the other alternative.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/13/2012 - 04:49 pm.

    As for snarkiness…

    Grownup readers of MinnPost will be able to distinguish between Ms. Harris’ opinions and the facts she’s presenting. “Objectivity” in journalism is delusional, and has been from the first Mesopotamian newspaper on clay tablets. What we ought to expect, instead of some fictional “objectivity,” is fairness, and while MinnPost writers often have a plainly-evident point of view, I’ve found them to be, on the whole, quite fair.

    “Fairness” doesn’t require a writer or columnist to treat with equal respect the ravings of an idiot and the speech or writing of someone who knows what they’re talking about. Nor does “fairness” require a writer to pretend that they have no viewpoint about the topic being examined. That MinnPost typically treats false arguments by public figures with the disdain they deserve, or occasionally tries for humor and interpretation rather than simply presenting a laundry list of numbers, is one of the things I like about it.

  6. Submitted by Mark Rittmann on 07/13/2012 - 05:12 pm.

    A Columnist with opinion and attitude? Imagine that!

    I regularly read Leonard Pits, Kathleen Parker, Clarence Page, Ms Harris,and others who provide attitude with their opinion. If you don’t appreciate the presentation style, move on (goodbye George Will, unless he is writing about baseball).

    Don’t confuse news coverage (which should refrain from attitude and opinion with a column which should include both.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2012 - 08:46 pm.


    Journalism is not required to be free of bias, it’s main requirement is that the information presented be accurate and reliable. I’m sure all these people who complain about bias have long since abandoned Fox news.

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