Much of the focus at the Minnesota Legislature this session, appropriately, has been on education and the need to prepare a world-class work force for Minnesota to compete. Legislators who have committed to solving problems for Minnesota should not forget transportation. It’s the second largest household expense (after housing), and affects everything from jobs to economic vitality to health care.
Thousands of Minnesotans from the labor and environmental movements have found common ground on ideas — such as investing in transit and transportation — that create good, family-supporting jobs while making our country more efficient and protecting our environment. Minnesota has an opportunity to plan ahead — and to catch up. Other parts of the country already are investing in transit, knowing that it will help them to attract the best and brightest workers and companies to their metro areas, as well as making it more affordable and sustainable to get to work.
Our peer cities — Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake — all invest more in transit and have leveraged federal funding for transit projects. The federal New Starts program that funds transit projects (such as the Central Corridor) is highly competitive. The states and regions that win have shown they have reliable, consistent state and local funding. The longer the Twin Cities waits, the more we are likely to lose.
Investments spark growth
We are already seeing here how transportation investments can spark real-estate growth. Schafer Richardson, a commercial and residential development company, has several new projects in Minneapolis and first-ring suburbs. They are focusing on locations on or near public transit routes, walking and bike paths, and in densely populated urban neighborhoods. In Minneapolis’ North Loop, what really excited potential residents was not the state’s investment in a new Twins stadium but the light rail station in front of the ballpark on Fifth Street.
Over the last 40 years, we have had three different Twins ballparks in three different locations, three different central libraries in three different locations, and three different Gopher football stadiums in three different locations. By contrast, investments in a publicly planned and financed transit system will have a much longer life cycle and will benefit everyone in the region and the state.
The benefits of moving faster on transportation extend to other areas of the state’s budget — notably health care.
Lower health-care costs
At Bloomington-based Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the nation’s largest supplier of bicycle parts and accessories, lower health-care costs have come via transportation.
QBP employs about 700 people. A great majority of employees either ride bicycles or depend on a daily multi-modal transit/bicycle commute to get to work. Because of corporate commitment to using bicycling and transit — and the availability of these choices in the south Minneapolis and Bloomington area — QBP has seen a 4.4 percent decrease in per-member per-month health-care costs, during a time when nationally per-member per-month costs have increased by nearly 25 percent. In other words, QBP employees are not only saving money as a result of choices in how they commute to work, they’re also healthier, which translates into decreasing QBP healthcare costs.
More active transportation is one way to address the chronic inactivity that is contributing to a variety of health problems. The American Heart Association estimates that if current trends continue, total health-care costs attributable to obesity alone could cost the nation close to $1 trillion by 2030, which would account for at least 16 percent of U.S. health expenditures.
Lack of physical activity is one of the key preventable risk factors for obesity, heart disease, stroke and a host of chronic diseases. Studies show that the use of public transit is associated with more walking. The amount of walking is significant enough that it could reduce the obesity epidemic and its related health costs.
Transit users walk more
The Surgeon General recommends that adults get at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity. While almost half of American adults do not meet this recommendation, public transit users spend an average of 19 minutes daily walking to and from transit. With rising numbers of transit users, and of bicycling and walking, it makes sense to allocate funds not only to meet demand but also for reasons of both access and health.
The Legislature has put forward some strong proposals this session to fund transportation, but they appear to be stalled despite Gov. Mark Dayton’s strong support for transit. To wait would be a big mistake. The Senate bill, in particular, recognizes the wide benefits of moving faster on these investments. It would fund the build-out of the metro region’s transit system in 15 years (bus, rail, as well as safe, accessible bicycling and walking), help Greater Minnesota transit systems meet rising demand, and ensure we have safe, efficient roads and bridges throughout the state.
This bill should move forward this session. The governor and legislators should seize transportation’s role in providing for a healthy, vibrant, stronger economy. We can’t afford to delay.
Rachel Callanan is a Regional Vice President of Advocacy for the American Heart Association, Midwest Affiliate, and leads Minnesota’s Healthy Kids Coalition. Katie Gulley is regional program manager for the BlueGreen Alliance, a nationwide coalition of labor and environmental organizations based in Minnesota. Kit Richardson is a Principal at Schafer Richardson. Gary Sjoquist is the Advocacy Director for Quality Bicycle Products (QBP).
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