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Seven transportation policy changes of the 2023 Minnesota legislative session you might have missed

The big-ticket items justifiably got a lot of attention, but with all the action happening before the late-May session deadline, it was easy to overlook some smaller changes tucked into the 268-page transportation omnibus bill.

Summit Avenue bike sign
The omnibus legislation made long-overdue bicycle policy changes, aligning state law with common sense.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

So much happened so quickly during the state legislative session, it was difficult to keep track. A huge surplus, ample federal spending and a DFL trifecta created a perfect storm of political movement that we’re not likely to see again. Especially for transportation policy, where dozens of key issues have lain in limbo for years, the plan was to do everything, everywhere, all at once.

Unlike the last DFL trifecta under Gov. Mark Dayton, when transportation funding was largely sidelined, this time around, long-time DFL leaders like Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble made sure transportation was a priority. The big-ticket items justifiably got a lot of attention, especially the regional sales tax for transit, light rail policing changes, funding for the Duluth train, and indexing the gas tax to inflation. With so much action happening before the late-May session deadline, it was easy to overlook smaller changes tucked into the 268-page transportation omnibus bill

Here are a few of my favorites.

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1. Greenway Extension Plan

I wrote about this a few years ago, and finally, the legislature acted on a golden opportunity. By extending Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway across the river, the Twin Cities could quickly build the best urban bike route on the continent.

Thanks to language in the omnibus bill, there’s hope for this long-stalled project. The big challenge has long been a lack of institutional leadership, meaning an interested government body to push the project. Now, the omnibus bill requires the Met Council to step up. They’re commanded to coordinate with Hennepin and Ramsey County regional rail authorities, along with local governments, to plan an off-street recreational trail from the eastern end of the Midtown Greenway over the Mississippi River.

The legislation is very specific, including route choices and connections like Southeast 27th Avenue and Seymour Street Southeast in Minneapolis, Prior and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul, and a dozen more all the way to Allianz Field. It’s rather rare to have trail parameters so specifically detailed in state legislation, but with a difficult situation involving lots of jurisdictional borders, this is the best way to move forward on what could be a huge boost to urban bicycling in the Twin Cities.2

2. Idaho Stop, a tribute to the late cycling advocate Bill Dooley

The omnibus legislation also made long-overdue bicycle policy changes, aligning state law with common sense. Too often, bicyclists have had to make hard choices between doing the legal thing and doing the safest thing when riding in car-dominated streets. This year, there are major fixes to that problem.

The first involves stop signs, and revolves around things you might have learned in your high school physics class, such as the conservation of momentum and the second law of motion (F = ma), that net force equals mass times acceleration.

The new statute states:

“A bicycle operator who approaches a stop sign must slow to a speed that allows for stopping before entering the intersection or the nearest crosswalk…. If there is not a vehicle in the vicinity, the operator may make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping. “

This kind of law was first pioneered in the U.S. in libertarian-leaning Idaho (thus its common name, the “Idaho stop”), but describes how the vast majority of cyclists behave the vast majority of the time. Because completely stopping zaps all momentum, re-starting after a stop sign — even from five miles per hour — requires a lot of effort. The new law will come as relief to anyone who doesn’t put their foot down at every stop sign, which describes everyone I’ve ever met.

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The other big change is a tiny bit of legal syntax, switching language describing where bicyclists must ride on public roads. Previously, the law stated that bicyclists must ride as close to the right side of the road as “was practicable;” the new legislation changes that phrase to as far right “as the bicycle operator determines is safe.” 

This is a key because the term “practicable” had long been used by police to mean the shoulder of a road, often unsafe for reasons that vary from glass to debris to potholes. The switch grants cyclists more leeway to judge for themselves the safest places for traveling, something they’d be doing anyway. 

3. Transit Signal Priority

With a big push from Representative Sydney Jordan, the omnibus includes a key piece of transit policy that I wrote about a few months ago. The Legislature is convening a task force to nudge Metro Transit and local governments to be more aggressive about implementing transit signal priority (TSP). This is where a stoplight will subtly extend green lights for a few seconds if buses are approaching, a rather simple programming design detail for modern traffic signals. 

In practice, this seemingly little thing can speed up transit time by a significant amount, often shaving as much as 10% off a trip through town. This has big benefits for both transit riders and agencies struggling with staffing shortages. Hopefully the new committee will lay the groundwork for more TSP “and related transit advantage improvements” (whatever that means) throughout the Twin Cities’ core.

4. Oberstar Bikeway

The omnibus names a new statewide bike route that will extend north from St. Paul past Duluth and, in theory, to the Canadian Border. Lots of pieces of the puzzle are already in place, like the Gateway and Munger trails, and someday this would connect them together, naming the new route after the late Iron Range congressman James Oberstar.

That said, don’t hold your breath for a bike trip to Ontario anytime soon. The challenge of a route like this is that the state doesn’t have the ability to force landowners to give up property for a trail. Instead, agencies will be piecing the route together when the opportunities arise. So far, you can almost get to Scandia, so there’s a long way to go.

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5. E-Bike rebates

Tucked into the omnibus is a $2M fund for a statewide rebate on electric assist bicycles. With the new legislation, people that buy e-bikes would qualify for a tax credit up to $1,500, depending on income eligibility. That’s a big discount for bikes that might cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 in the first place.

I predict this first-come, first-serve rebate funding will disappear quickly. Most people underestimate the size of the e-bike market; there were more than 800,000 e-bikes sold in the U.S. last year. A similar rebate program in the city of Denver quickly ran out of money. Still, given the climate emissions and public health benefits at stake, this program will pay dividends long into the future. 

6. VMT provision

The omnibus legislation has a provision that, for the first time, forces the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to take climate change seriously in its long-term planning. The agency is now required to study emissions and climate goals for each of its big-ticket freeway projects. This would theoretically require the agency to halt, change, or mitigate plans that increase driving and carbon pollution, as, historically, most DOT projects have done.

Importantly, the legislation does not simply require MnDOT to look to carbon emissions, but also the total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction goals that have been (half-heartedly) adopted by the agency. This means that agency analyses will have to go beyond simply accounting for the electrification of the state’s vehicle fleet, but also tackle reducing overall driving in Minnesota. It’s hard to overstate the size of this change for a state DOT, which since their inception have been predicated on growing the amount of VMT

The legislation includes options for “mitigation” of highway projects that would increase driving; the list includes spending money on walking, transit, land use changes, or “natural systems,” and a few other categories of action. For folks concerned about state climate action, it’ll be fascinating to watch whether or not this policy provides any real change in state’s long-term transportation investments around highway expansion.

7. Rice Street

There’s a relatively surprising pot of $25 million that was included in the omnibus bill, dedicating the entire sum to reconstructing and improving a “multimodal hub” at Rice Street near the State Capitol. The precise language calls for the money to go to “planning, predesign, design, engineering, environmental analysis and mitigation, land acquisition, and reconstruction” of about a half-mile of the street on either side of the Green Line station.

Long-time readers of this column will already know about the situation on Rice Street around the Capitol, which has seen bleak land use for decades under the watch of the Capital Area Architecture and Planning Board that governs the area around the capital. Given the massive allocation for a redesigned State Office Building, that would also eliminate or degrade the public space around what is today’s Leif Erikson park, spending a hefty chunk of state money to improve public space in a key corner in St. Paul will come as a relief to people living in the neighborhood.