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

The two sides are usually at each other’s throats, but proponents of roads and bridges and transit advocates say it’s time for a long-term, sustainable funding source.

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.
Courtesy of MnDOT

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.”