Does transportation add value?

Photo by John Harrington
No LRT or BRT here.

Yesterday, Steve Berg had a great piece in the Star Tribune: “Roads won’t fix themselves. Transit won’t just materialize.”

In my opinion, it would have been substantially improved if he had included reference to the report prepared by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies and delivered to the Minnesota Legislature at their request and direction. The news release for the study is dated back in 2009, so I can only assume that legislators, even those with very busy schedules and tough reelection campaigns, would have had time to read it.

One of the major problems with governance these days, it seems to me, is that political churn effectively destroys much of the institutional memory needed to effectuate solutions that call for longer range thinking. Add gridlock and we have a situation that requires constantly reinventing the wheel.

Private wheels and public roads work well in places that will never be transit dependent.

Anyhow, I commend Mr. Berg for noting that the citizens of Minnesota have been failed by both Republican and Democratic leadership, perhaps not equally, but effectively. At several times during my career as a regional planner I worked intimately with transportation planners. I did not then and do not now understand why massive public sector investments allow the private sector to accrue much (almost all) of the benefits. Shifting to, or adding, value capture makes sense to me.

Nor do I believe that it would require a split between the value of the land and the value of the improvements to the land. Much of the value of a building derives from its location, including accessibility, and much of the energy consumption associated with a building derives from getting occupants to the building.

I am, perhaps too optimistically, assuming that some day our political leadership of both parties will wake up to the fact that climate change is going to be an economic disaster and that we should do more, now, to pick some low-hanging energy conservation strategies. One way to do that would be to include major road reconstruction (rebuilding, not just resurfacing) projects as another source for value capture and move ahead with some pilot efforts next session. Maybe this is a topic we should remember to discuss with those who want our votes this November, both for the governor’s office and House seats.

The highway trust fund is expected to be broke this autumn or the next. We better have some answers soon or we can all just stay home and phone it in. Supporting the Trust Fund with general revenue would be like fighting wars we don’t tax ourselves to pay for.

We’d never do that, would we?

In a less snarky and hopefully more constructive vein, I’ve noticed that the price of gasoline has varied widely over the past several years. Saturday, I bought gas locally at $3.399. Yesterday, I drove past another station in the same chain, located about 15 miles from the station I used Saturday, and gas was $3.559. It occurred to me that, instead of letting all of this variability in price end up in oil company’s profits, we could set up a scheme that established a baseline price, say $3.40, based on the last several years average price. Then, as long as gas was less than the baseline, there would be not gas tax increase. If oil companies raised gas to $3.41, we would add on a $.05 gas tax (or some other reasonable amount). We’d just be skimming some profits from oil companies, not increasing the price of gasoline with this kind of approach. Actually, to make the rationale and calculations easier, I suggest we should match the gas tax increases to the gas price increases penny for penny.

It works for me, but then, I think complete streets should include non-human users.

This post was written by John Harrington and originally published on My Minnesota. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnHthePoet.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 05/21/2014 - 09:30 am.

    You sound like a StrongTowns advocate, John. Good article! Not sure I agree about the baseline fuel price, but we do need to reform the gas tax.

    As our MnDOT commissioner notes (yet he doesn’t draw the proper conclusion) user fees including gas tax only cover about 40% of road costs. We don’t need any new roads – we already have far too many, and vehicle miles traveled is decreasing despite population increasing. We can’t afford to maintain the roads we have, precisely because we aren’t capturing value. When it comes to roads, we need to immediately double the gas tax so that people are paying for what they use. Tolls of urban freeways should also be on the table. We can no longer afford to subsidize an auto-dependent lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with that lifestyle choice requiring long drives, but we ought not subsidize it as a public preference.

    Your last line about complete streets for non-human users is spot on too — our infrastructure needs to be context sensitive. A gravel road out in the woods serves a different purpose from an urban street where more people travel by foot, bike, and transit than by car. In our quest to acquiesce to traffic engineers and standardize everything, we’ve lost sight of the true purpose of our roads (to move people) and streets (to connect places building value) in an efficient way.

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