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Lawmakers at work: On roadways, hands-free phones and bike ed

Debates in the Minnesota Legislature have reached full swing, and so far the early results suggest there could be a lot of activity around state transportation policy.

Demonstrators being detained on I-94 during a July 9, 2016, protest.
REUTERS/Adam Bettcher

Debates in the Minnesota Legislature have reached full swing, and so far the early results suggest there could be a lot of activity around state transportation policy. While local governments often get the brunt of people’s traffic attention, a huge part of the urban landscape is shaped by state law and spending priorities. Here are a few of the most interesting bills that are hovering around the House floor so far, along with some comments from interested parties. 

HF 322

This bill would impact demonstrations that block public roads. The first of these, in the words of transparency watchdog Tony Webster, “allow government agencies to file civil lawsuits against individuals to recover costs of police presence and response, along with ‘related legal, administrative and court costs,’ to any person convicted of participating in an unlawful assembly, to any person present at an unlawful assembly, or any person committing public nuisance.”

Introducing the legislation to the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, described the intention of the legislation, whose language authorizes “government units to sue to recover for the public safety response costs related to unlawful assemblies and public nuisances …”:

“This bill is not a limit to someone’s legal First Amendment rights. It wouldn’t limit anyone’s ability to legally protest. It wouldn’t limit anyone’s ability to legally petition their government or to demonstrate.” He said it was to help government agencies recoup the cost of enforcement. 

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The issue of blocking public rights-of-way for demonstrations is notoriously complex. For one thing, the precise legal status of demonstrations and public right-of-way depend on the jurisdiction of the roadway. As the largest artery in the transportation hierarchy, freeways have become the flashpoint of the debate, particularly over the last few years as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and others have intensified both in the Twin Cities and around the country.

“What strikes me about this deal, in particular, is the timing and the fact that Republican legislators decided to bring forward a bill repressing free speech and attempting to use a law as a tool to intimidate protesters at a time when African-Americans and their allies are rising up in protest against police brutality, police misconduct, and officer involved shootings of African-Americans,” Nekima Levy-Pounds told me this week. Levy-Pounds is civil rights attorney and a candidate for Minneapolis mayor. 

Jurisdiction battles between the city, state, and federal governments over issues like minimum wage laws, immigration, and civil rights have come to the fore as states increasingly push pre-emption bills that remove local control. The question of who has the rights to occupy freeways in urban areas is another example of how this kind of jurisdictional conflict plays out.

Zerwas did not return a request for comment. HF 322 currently has 27 co-sponors and has been referred to the House Public Safety Committee.

Hands-free phones

An attempt to address a different escalating issue on Minnesota’s roads, a bill soon to be introduced by Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, which would ban driving while using a phone unless it had hands-free capability.

“The main goal here is to protect Minnesotans’ safety and ensure that we prevent more needless deaths and injuries,” explained Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who is co-sponsoring the bill in the House. “People are distracted behind the wheel. It’s that simple and we do believe the time is right to do this. It’s bipartisan and crosses the urban/rural divide.”

Back in 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board called for a blanket ban on cellphones in cars, suggesting that states individually pass laws against using phones of any kind while driving a car. Despite the science behind the safety claims of a phone ban, little progress has been made in states like Minnesota where high per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are nearly ubiquitous feature of the landscape.

But this year might be different.

“We were able to make some progress last year on increasing the penalties for texting, and that really sailed through bipartisanly, without a lot of controversy,” Hornstein explained. “In the process, I found a great Republican partner to work with. Uglem is taking the lead now on this bill, and now might be the time. Just increasing the fee for texting [while driving] was not going to help law enforcement with enforcing the bill. They needed to have a hands-free ban.”

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The bill will be introduced on the House Floor soon, likely this week.

HFs 3417 and 499

These are two bicycling bills that propose changes to state policy around bike lanes and infrastructure regulation. The first, HF 3417, offers a clarification of MnDOT’s bicycle policy, leaving behind a piece of 1970s-era legislation original sponsored by now-retired Minneapolis Rep. Phyllis Kahn that was meant to boost the state’s commitment to building bicycling infrastructure.

“Three or four years ago, the governor had an initiative to look at all existing statues, and ask agencies to review whether things looked current,” explained Timothy Mitchell, the bicycle program director at MnDOT. “We did our due diligence and … found some things that didn’t make sense, from the ’70s. As you can imagine, things have changed a lot since then.”

One of the big changes is that the bill, as currently written, would strike out language that calls for a state grant program to fund a system of “bikeways.” As Mitchell explains it, the grant program was never funded and so the statute (160.265) just sat there on the books.

The proposed legislation would remove the old statue and, instead of legislating through the broad category of “bikeways,” which can be anything from a mutli-use trail to pained sharrows, the new legislation would focus the state agency’s attention on the two new state bike routes, one that runs north-south and one that runs east-west through the state.

“We looked at that saw what other states were doing that was a good policy initiative to put forward; we were walking away from the bikeway idea and what we were trying to do in terms of bikeway versus bike routes is not pit them against each other but clarify they are two different ideas in statute.”

Yet not everyone is pleased with the first draft of the legislation.

“I worry that it’s going backwards on creating a bikeway system and supporting people who bike in Minnesota,” Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, told me this week. She is currently working with MnDOT and bicycle advocates to clarify the bill’s language and to ensure that useful agency bicycle support, such as the legally required official map of state bike lanes and routes, would remain intact.

HF 499 has garnered more attention. The proposal would require users of “urban bike lanes” to have a permit, and go through bike licensing and education classes. In an email to Andy Singer, a St. Paul bike advocate, Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, explained the idea behind the legislation.

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“This started because I saw a big increase in bike lanes, asked around and found that we do not require knowledge of the rules of the road for bike riders. I’m concerned that we will have a tragedy, followed by a rushed-through fix. In order to start the discussion, I had the revisor take what is required for motorcycles and adapt it for bikes used on bike lanes. The base need is to know the rules of the road and be old enough to be attentive and safe. It uses a nominal fee for covering costs.”

Meanwhile, Dorian Grilley, the executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, is pushing back against the legislation. In a recent post on the League blog, he described the proposal as “discriminatory” and full of “faulty logic.”

“The reason it doesn’t make sense is that bicyclists have the right to ride on the road,” Grilley explained to me earlier this week. “If a permit is required to ride in a bike lane, a bicyclist without a permit could just ride in the traffic lane adjacent to the bike lane, perfectly legally, or ride on another street. We think would be more unsafe than riding in the bike lane.”

The issue of bicycle licenses is one of those perennial arguments that recur during every debate about a new bike lane or regulation. Yet the idea has rarely been successfully, or economically, implemented. In every case, attempts to regulate bicycling have the countereffect of reducing the number of bicyclists on the roads and decreasing overall bicycling safety.

“It also wouldn’t make sense to exempt visitors to our state, because they’re the ones who would be least familiar with that bike lane,” Grilley explained. “It’d be onerous for someone to come to Minneapolis, check out a Nice Ride bike, and have a sign saying, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t ride in any of the bike lanes unless you go to the DMV, take a test and get a permit.”

Quam did not return a request for comment on the issue.

Local speed limits

Finally, careful readers of this column might recall my efforts to add a speed limit local control plank to the DFL platform during the 2016 State Convention. At the very least, a proposal that would allow cities of the first class to set their own speed limits has been added to the legislative agendas for both Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

We have made a little bit of progress,” Russ Stark, the St. Paul City Council president, told me this week. “Minneapolis has had the same request in their legislative agenda for years, and just gave up on it because it wasn’t going anywhere. But they are willing to place it back into their agenda, and we have a meeting with Transportation Chair Linda Runbeck, who has been helpful. We’ve been in touch with our folks who work at the Capitol, and it seems like there might be a bill.”

During the DFL convention, the proposal came in dead last among suggested platform amendments. Perhaps the idea will fare better in the Legislature. It certainly cannot do any worse.