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When it comes to transportation, Utah shows us the way

The Beehive State figured out how to engender broad support for its transit policies.

utah trax
The UTA points out that TRAX ridership saves 29,000 trips — or two full freeway lanes — in the Interstate 15 corridor every day.

Last year, an advisory committee appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton issued a bold plan to close an estimated $50 billion gap in the funding needed to keep Minnesota’s transportation system economically competitive over the next 20 years. By and large this year, the recommendations for everything from roads and transit to airports and rail were ignored by a progressive-dominated Legislature, just as similar initiatives went nowhere when conservatives were in control.

Conrad DeFiebre

With one noteworthy exception — in 2008, after the I-35W bridge collapse disaster — shortchanging the transportation investments that underpin our economy has been a rare point of bipartisan accord for the past quarter-century in Minnesota. Interestingly, this near-perfectly mirrors the across-the-aisle support these initiatives enjoyed before then.

This is a national phenomenon, too. A recent news report noted that opposition to raising federal fuel taxes, which have been stuck in neutral since 1993, is probably the only point of agreement between the Tea Party and President Barack Obama. On the other hand, support comes from both business and labor, another unusual confluence of interest.

In our region, the result of inaction has been crumbling roads, teetering bridges and mediocre-at-best transit service, with expansion to meet Greater Minnesota’s needs stalled and the Twin Cities lagging behind peer regions in high-quality rail and rapid bus improvements. Surprisingly, a significant number of the places outstripping us are solidly conservative.

Looking for a model?

A historic opportunity to catch up still awaits next year, now that progressives spent the recent legislative session focused on restoring the state’s overall fiscal course to sustainabity after a decade of conservative deficits fueled by tax-cutting profligacy. Policymakers who aren’t embarrassed to strengthen public goods just because they’re public have a chance to move Minnesota ahead for generations to come, and the best model may be an unlikely one: Utah.

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The Beehive State is about as conservative as they come, dominated culturally by the Mormon Church and typically voting two-thirds red in statewide elections. Its six-member, all-male delegation in Congress includes just one progressive House member, overbalanced ideologically by a Tea Party darling in the Senate. Strangely, however, its sprawling urban heart stretching north and south from Salt Lake City has a transit system that should be the envy of the nation.

The Wasatch Front region, home to nearly four out of five Utahans, built 70 miles of FrontLines light rail in the past seven years, augmenting 175 miles of commuter rail infrastructure the transit authority secured from the Union Pacific a decade ago. According to Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities, the freight rail acquisition allowed transit development to proceed even if individual cities objected.

Given our Metropolitan Council’s well-documented travails routing a line that may bring the three-times-larger Twin Cities up to 39 miles or so of light rail by 2018, the Utah strategy looks pretty smart. (Hennepin County did something similar by buying tracks in the controversy-wracked Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis, but without the same benefit for the entire system. Differences in specific situations or state laws may account for this.)

UTA gathered broad support

But the canniness of Utah’s transit builders didn’t end there, Jaffe reports. In a region where voters rejected a transit tax in 1992 and protesters held up signs at a 1997 groundbreaking reading “Light Rail Kills Children” (of course, private motoring doesn’t — except for the 31 under the age of 18 who died in Minnesota crashes last year, for example), Utah Transit Authority (UTA) leaders gathered broad support from local officials, businesses and even drivers. 

“One of UTA’s most effective strategies for uniting people was targeting those who don’t use public transit,” Jaffe wrote. “The agency and its advocates pointed out that TRAX ridership saves 29,000 trips — or two full freeway lanes — in the Interstate 15 corridor every day. Road-reliant businesses like UPS ran ads explaining that FrontLines would help residents get their packages quicker by reducing traffic.”

In addition, a government-affiliated planning coalition called Envision Utah has helped guide smart growth and transit-oriented development since the late 1990s. Go Minnesota, a North Star State equivalent organized around the transportation advisory panel’s recommendations, came on much later.

Big support for sales-tax referendum

In deep-red Utah, all this led to overwhelming approval — 64 percent to 36 percent — of a sales-tax referendum in 2006. The measure was touted as a way to fast-track light rail build-out from a projected completion in 2030 all the way up to 2015. And then, with the help of a planning and local jurisdiction process that Jaffe said “prevented cities from withholding support unless they got a better deal” on basic infrastructure, the whole thing, costing $2.5 billion, was delivered this past August, two years early.

“We have a backbone that serves a majority of the state’s population,” a transit authority official told Jaffe.

And that’s the way you solidify support for a 21st-century transit system and, by extension, many other public endeavors, even in a place where folks tend to believe, with Ronald Reagan, that government is the problem, not the solution.

Minnesota’s population is not as clustered as Utah’s, so our transportation visions must be more broadly multimodal, including significant bumps in funding for “complete” state and local roads as well as urban and rural transit and intercity passenger rail. Dayton’s advisory committee has laid out sensible fuel, registration, sales and leased vehicle tax measures to achieve this with positive returns on investment.

Now it’s up to progressives, with the wise example of conservatives to our west to guide us, to make it so for the transportation efficiency, sustainability, safety and prosperity of Minnesota for years into the future.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on its website.


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