MoveMN coalition leading a new political drive for better roads, bridges, transit

Courtesy of MnDOT
The Transportation Funding Advisory Committee has declared that the state would need $21 billion over the next 20 years merely to maintain the roads and bridges it has.

The two sides are usually at each other’s throats. Proponents of roads and bridges on the one hand argue that unless Minnesota invests billions, our aging transportation infrastructure will deteriorate to yak paths in rural Mongolia.

In contrast, transit advocates say that we need to build trains, light rail, buses and other efficient people-moving systems; if we don’t, our roads will become more clogged than a heart patient’s arteries and our skies as dirty as Ulaanbaatar’s. (That’s the capital of Mongolia and the world’s second-most polluted city, according to the World Health Organization.)

Obviously, I exaggerate. Still, in a December 2012 report, the Transportation Funding Advisory Committee appointed by the governor declared that the state would need $21 billion over the next 20 years merely to maintain the roads and bridges it has and $50 billion to create a “world-class” system, including transit in the Twin Cities and in Greater Minnesota.

Those are daunting numbers, and the dual claims of road and transit advocates on public funds often end in stalemate. In the 2013 legislative session, the two groups came ever so close to getting what they both wanted in one big package.

But when Gov. Mark Dayton refused to raise the gas tax, the primary means of financing highways, a seven-county sales tax that would have funded light rail in the Twin Cities also got left in the ditch. Ergo, Minnesota was left without the dough to fix the falling-down bridges and roads full of potholes and not enough money to unfetter the federal aid needed for mass transit.   

Now, however, a below-the-radar coalition has formed to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Called MoveMN and made up of 71 (and counting) interest groups, it has been quietly hammering out its own comprehensive transportation agenda complete with funding plans since last summer.

“It’s about 85 percent there,” says Darin Broton, spokesman for the group and an account director with Tunheim, a public relations firm. Once what he calls “our dark process” concludes (“dark,” because it’s not exactly happening in public view), the group will promote its proposals to the Legislature during its 2014 session and, they hope, get them adopted.

A shotgun marriage

Who’s in this group? Normally, I would send you to the website, but there’s really nothing there yet except a link to its Facebook page, which doesn’t have much posted either. The major partnership is what one person described as a “shotgun marriage” between:

1) The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, itself a coalition of construction and engineering firms as well as county and city governments whose mission, according to its website, is to increase funding for “state highways, local bridges, local roads, major transit ways and local transit systems, ports and waterways and airports” and

 2) Transit for a Stronger Economy, a coalition of 50 community groups in the Twin Cities pushing for mass transit.

Other key players: Transit for Livable Communities, Associated General Contractors, AFSCME and groups representing what Broton calls “the bike/walk community.”

Business interests also are lining up. “The Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce is on board,” he adds. “We’re hoping the St. Paul Chamber will join too.”

Also included are a few other groups that wouldn’t seem to have any particular interest in transportation — the Lao Assistance Center, Summit Academy and the Minnesota Chapter of the American Heart Association.

What could such disparate groups possibly agree on?

Right now, that’s unclear since nobody’s saying — although Broton contends, “We’ve found more that unites than divides us.” Another member sitting on MoveMN’s steering committee says that debate continues over:

• Funding mechanisms. Should there be an increased gas tax or a gross receipts tax on oil (which would rise with inflation)?

• Distribution of resources. How much should Greater Minnesota get, compared with the Twin Cities, and to what degree do roadways need to be added to, rather than merely repaired and maintained, considering that the number of vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota (and nationwide) has remained static for the past 10 years?

According to the group’s one-page manifesto, any funding has to be “long-term and sustainable.” Bonding and borrowing that are subject to legislative whim don’t fall in either category.

A two-pronged effort

The impetus for MoveMN came at least partly from Ann Mulholland, vice president of grants and program at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, a network of foundations that includes the St. Paul Foundation and the Minnesota Community Foundation.

To make a long story short, they had become involved in making sure that people living near the Central Corridor LRT line benefitted economically from the public’s $1 billion investment; that evolved into a desire to make sure that future transportation funding was equitable and led to more jobs and economic vitality. After the failure of the transportation package in the 2013 session, says Mulholland, “we wanted to see what we could do to carry it over the line in 2014.”

The effort is two-pronged. The foundations have contributed about $400,000 for what sounds like a rather goody-two-shoes outreach program to educate the public on the importance of transportation to the economy, particularly its significance in job creation. That’s still in the planning stages. Part of that funding, however, has already gone to underwrite focus groups of citizens who’ve been asked their opinions on improving highways, building mass transit and paying taxes to finance them.

Information they’ve provided may inform the second part of MoveMN’s campaign: the development of its agenda and its lobbying in the state Legislature. (Other funds for lobbying are coming from coalition members.)

A short session

This highly muscular approach still may not be strong enough to overcome the seasonal political tides. The 2014 legislative session is a short one, kicking off at the end of February. For the House and the governor, it’s an election year, and lawmakers facing constituents may have little appetite for a new round of tax increases. Last year’s $2.1 billion hike fell most heavily on smokers and on high-income Minnesotans. But a mechanism to fund transportation permanently — a sales tax, a gas tax, a mileage tax or some combination — would have a much more widespread impact. And, results from those focus groups have shown little enthusiasm for paying it.

Mulholland points out that when people are asked flat out if they want to pay more taxes for anything, they’re unlikely to say “yes.” But she insists that when they’re educated on the importance of access to jobs, training, housing and education, they’re more willing to listen. “I’m hopeful,” she says. “Very hopeful.”

And the focus groups have turned up some interesting information. People in Rochester want a rail line to the Twin Cities, and folks in Itasca are interested in transit. Who knew?

Broton believes that if the coalition can win over the business community and some Republican votes, MoveMN’s agenda has a shot. The DFL majorities are likely to be on board. “People who came into office in 2012 feel they were elected to solve problems,” he says. “Transportation is the one big problem they haven’t solved yet.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/03/2013 - 10:32 am.

    Way overdue

    I’m happy to see some groups coming together to address what will surely be a huge issue with economic and social, not to mention environmental and political consequences that will affect almost all of us — an issue that’s politically difficult, and thus inclined to be swept under the fiscal and political rug whenever possible. The formation of the group, and the fact that it’s been operating “under the radar,” seems to me an indication of just how thorny some of the details and consequences are.

    It doesn’t matter to me in the least whether or not Minnesota has a “world-class” transportation system that New Yorkers and Parisians come to marvel at. The people being served are not from New York or Paris, and the ones I’d like to see marveling at the condition, convenience and cost-effectiveness of Minnesota’s transportation system ought to be Minnesotans.

    Maintenance is never as sexy an issue as construction, but if we don’t maintain what we have (which is already insufficient in some cases), it’ll end up strangling the state’s economy — and that has social and political costs. Finger-pointing will do little good after the fact. As for the daunting fiscal scenario, well, when maintenance has been deferred for decades in some instances, we shouldn’t expect a bargain. Homeowners who defer maintenance for decades find that when they finally get around to doing some of the things they should have been doing all along, the costs have skyrocketed, partly due to inflation, and partly due to ancillary work that has to be done, but which might have been avoided altogether if maintenance had not been deferred year after year after year.

    In highways and rail and bike paths, as in life, there ain’t no free lunch. All of them cost money, and the oft-observed desire on the part of the public to get what it wants without paying for it should be approached as uninformed. As fuel costs continue to rise, both at the pump and in environmental terms, there will be some difficult choices to make, and a system that claims to be “public” should involve as many stakeholders in that public as can be accommodated.

    Some will call it “education,” some will call it “indoctrination,” but whatever it’s called, the public is going to have to be persuaded that the transportation system, and all of its parts, is a central feature of a functioning society and economy. Keeping what we have and making it work better and smarter is in the public interest, and that’s the interest that ought to be served first by the legislature.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/03/2013 - 02:37 pm.

    Maintenance

    Since we can’t afford to maintain existing roads why are we building new roads? There should be a long term plan to pay for maintenance of existing roads before any new ones are built.
    Vehicles getting higher mileage and using alternative fuels will decrease income from the gas tax, this reality needs to be addressed sooner than later.
    Not sure what world class transit means. Is that a subway/light rail system to mention some of the big urban centers of the world or more freeways. I would think statistically the Twin Cities has more freeway miles per capita than most major cities in the US.

  3. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/03/2013 - 02:38 pm.

    Good Directionw

    If such disparate groups can reach consensus on sustainable transportation in this state, it can be a model of how to work out many more contentious issues.

    We have had the tools to reach consensus for many years, decades even, so it is about time to use them in goverment; the lobbying organizations are a great start and example for others.

    Today transportation, tomorrow family planning and sex education.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/03/2013 - 03:48 pm.

      Family Planning

      Or “family planing,” as my local Walgreens had it spelled for many years. Every time I walked into that store and saw the sign I thought “man, that has to hurt!” They eventually got it replaced.

  4. Submitted by Kasia McMahon on 12/03/2013 - 02:51 pm.

    Mega lobby

    This isn’t a transportation advocacy group, its a construction jobs mega-lobby disguised as a transportation group. Sure, there may be some well-meaning actors, but the big bucks are coming from the unions and the contractors. And contractors don’t care about transit or whether a project is a good idea–they care about pouring concrete and getting paid. And if anyone doubts this, just look at the $750 million Stillwater bridge to no-where (only several miles from the 94 bridge!). This group is definitely scary, and only serves to pressure politicians to build mega projects whether or not they actually make sense for Minnesotans.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/03/2013 - 04:11 pm.

      Highways

      Yeah, the Stillwater bridge is a pretty dumb idea. The same goal could have been accomplished at a fraction of the cost without doing a bluff to bluff design. Everybody involved in that project has a whole hen house worth of eggs on their faces.

      The rest of your rant though…not so much. I’m sure there are elements of the group who would like nothing more than to get endless contracts, but they’re not the ones calling the shots. You have MNDot professional staff, MTC planners, and the Met Council in the mix who do the planning, just to name a few of the organizations. No one gets to walk in on Monday and decide they’re going to build a bridge over a creek just for the hell of it.

      The bottom line is our infrastructure needs to be improved and there’s not enough money in the system to get it done. Bridges are crumbling and falling down around us–the 35W bridge is just outside my office window. Or have we already forgotten what a horrific disaster that was? I’m sorry; I didn’t put the proper inflection on an earlier sentence. We NEED infrastructure improvement. It’s not going to get done by wringing our hands and ranting about unions.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/03/2013 - 04:53 pm.

    No New Taxes Chamber?

    Will the Chambers of Commerce involved still be supporting the “no new taxes” politicians they been backing of late? Or will they only support candidates with a more nuanced and less demagogic position on taxes? Supporters of same sex marriage have stepped up to cover the backs of legislators from conservative parts of the state who stuck their necks out on that issue. Would the C of C stand by legislators who vote to raise transportation taxes?

    It will be interesting to see where that rubber meets the road.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/08/2013 - 12:48 pm.

    More revenue

    We need to increase the gasoline tax and invest in our transportation infrastructure.

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