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Why Minnesota would be better off with no transportation bill than any of the current proposals

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Why would we commit to spend billions of dollars over the next decade propping up a 1950s model of development at a time the state is shifting so dramatically in a different direction?

Back in 2011, I coined the term “infrastructure cult,” not to be bombastic but to highlight a destructive mindset that has crept deep into the cultural narrative of America. The notion, fully captured by fellow Minnesotan Tom Friedman in his book, That Used to Be Us, is simple: investments in infrastructure create growth, jobs and prosperity. Period. End of conversation.

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At a forum for the Washington Post that I spoke at last October, Vice President Biden called this the “oldest story in history.” Pounding his fist on the podium, he remarked, “Build, build, build, build, build….that’s the story.” The policy wonks in attendance largely nodded in concurrence. If we want a successful America, invest in infrastructure. It’s obvious.

This kind of simplistic analysis is comforting to those like Move MN — a coalition largely consisting of contractors, engineering firms, unions, local governments and professional lobbying organizations — who benefit from the one-dimensional conversation. Do you want more jobs or less? More mobility or less? More growth or less?

Do you want a dystopian race to the bottom or a political compromise that gets us all a little bit more of what each of us wants?

I reject all of these false choices. They are a construct of the current political debate, shaped by the propaganda from organizations like Move MN. They are not a serious examination of our complex and intertwined transportation, land use, economic and social challenges, struggles that go way beyond how much money we are going to spend on transportation. The Move MN proposal may be good politics, but it is bad policy. Enacting it will lead to a weaker Minnesota.

There are many reasons to oppose the Move MN proposal. I will highlight the three most important.

1. Our automobile-based development pattern weakens our cities

Many Minnesotans are waking up to the notion that our experiment with building cities around the automobile has been a financial failure. The early illusion of wealth associated with this style of development is now being overwhelmed by the long term costs, a huge percentage of which fall to local governments unprepared for them. While we’ve found creative ways to finance new growth, spreading a population out across a vast landscape is a prohibitively expensive undertaking to sustain.

The Move MN proposal completely ignores these critical problems and, in fact, associates success with the short term illusion of wealth. Earlier this year, Margaret Donahue, Executive Director of the Transportation Alliance, the group spearheading the Move MN coalition, identified the Brainerd bypass that runs through Baxter as a major success story.

You look at [Highway] 371 through Baxter as a classic case. It used to be a sleepy little town and now there’s just business after business after business.

Those businesses are, of course, the typical collection of corporate chains that our transportation investments subsidize. Priced out of this market is the entire local ecosystem of businesses that strong cities are built upon. It’s a system designed to make the wealthy wealthier and, as a byproduct, traps places in perpetual decline. Persistent disparities in wealth and income are a direct byproduct of the development pattern our transportation investments have created.

This system encourages cities to chase the quick dollar that comes from state and federal transportation spending. Our local bureaucracies are set up to do this, to look up the government food chain and react to the programs and incentives that trickle down. In this, local governments completely ignore the pennies, nickels and dimes that they could pick up by making small, incremental investments in their own neighborhoods. So much of our latent potential is being sidelined. The Move MN proposal would ensure it stays that way.

Note that the market is trying to correct this. Despite all the subsidies pushing the other way, there is a net migration out of the suburbs and into cities. Why would we commit to spend billions of dollars over the next decade propping up a 1950s model of development at a time the state is shifting so dramatically in a different direction?

2. Without good feedback, our transportation funding problems will only grow

In the 1950’s, we instituted a gas tax as a way to build the interstate system. That effort was completed decades ago, yet the system continues to grow far beyond what such a blunt tax could imaginably support. Again, this is not a problem of funding but an inherent flaw with the gas tax itself.

The major problem with the gas tax is that it is opaque (hidden from the user) and largely disconnected from demand. There is no feedback mechanism between the user of the system and the provider of the service, a condition that has (frustratingly) allowed Minnesotans to demand lots of transportation spending while resisting the corresponding increases in taxes to make that possible. The Move MN proposal would magnify this dysfunctional side effect by instituting a tax that is even more opaque and disconnected from demand than the gas tax.

Case in point, in my hometown of Brainerd — where there is no congestion — people believe there is horrible congestion. Without any feedback mechanism that discerns the true need, we will continue to fight that non-existent congestion in the same way we have been: with millions of dollars of state and federal transportation money. We’ll pursue our share of the pot and we’ll demand our chance to experience jobs, growth and prosperity. So will everyone else.

Our primary transportation objective can no longer be expansion of the system. Instead, we need to focus on making better use of the investments we have already made. That means a more nuanced funding approach that correlates supply and demand while acknowledging the subtle land use implications of transportation investments.

The Move MN proposal makes our feedback problem worse and only guarantees a more painful funding gap in the future. Again, their proposal is good politics, but it is really bad policy.

3. We need aggressive investments in transit, biking, and walking

I have consistently argued that the highest returning investment a community can make is to improve the ability of people to walk and bike. I’m not talking about return on investment in the abstract way it has been portrayed on streets.mn — “fewer cars on the road, big health cost savings, and air and carbon pollution reductions” — I’m talking about hard cash. Cities that make incremental investments to improve the ability of their residents to bike and walk will get higher returns than any other type of transportation investment.

Create opportunities for a family to go down to one car, you’ve completely changed their economic situation. Bring a customer to a business without that enterprise needing to subsidize a parking space or invest in a massive digital sign to lure drivers off the road and you’ve opened up opportunities for business startups and expansion. These are the slow and steady ways cities build wealth throughout their communities.

The Move MN proposal would throw a paltry sum at biking and walking infrastructure. This is being touted as a necessary compromise by those advocates who mistake Minnesota’s lack of support for biking and walking investments as a simple shortage of resources. The truth is that cities have all the resources they need to make fantastic biking and walking investments, but in a system awash with money, one that prioritizes automobile investments, they have little urgent reason to question the subsidies of the auto-oriented economic model.

This is a cultural problem, not a funding problem. Just this week we have another story from St. Paul of small business owners opposing bike lanes because it will impact automobile parking. This is lunacy, but adopt the Move MN approach to shovel an additional $10+ billion at auto-based infrastructure and we’ll postpone the necessary, complex and difficult conversations every community needs to have about their own financial health.

I don’t want $50 million in bike investments over the next decade. I want $1 billion in bike investments. The future of our cities, as well as our economy, depends on it. That kind of transformation won’t come about by trying to overwhelm opposition to bike infrastructure with the top/down funding equivalent of a pea shooter. It will only happen with a bottom/up, cultural shift towards a new understanding within our cities on how we create jobs, growth and prosperity. That shift is well underway; the Move MN proposal, if enacted, will greatly empower the forces resisting that change.

When it comes to transit in the Twin Cities metropolitan region, the Move MN proposal would have us commit to the Metrodome of transit systems at just the time when other cities around the country are waking up to the transportation equivalent of Camden Yards, a switch from pandering to commuters with low-returning park and rides to investments that integrate within existing urban neighborhoods and serve emerging economic ecosystems. Building out the Twin Cities transit system as currently envisioned is not a feature of the Move MN proposal; it is a fatal flaw.

In Greater Minnesota, we need to acknowledge that there will never be enough money to dial-a-ride our way to prosperity. The Move MN proposal of $32 million for rural transit to ensure “everyone has reliable transit access” has a very generous definition of “reliable.” A clumsy, expensive and intermittent taxi service to transport people to and from the regional big box stores does not alleviate rural poverty; it reinforces it.

We need a comprehensive statewide transit approach that focuses on building community wealth and prosperity by connecting productive places, not simply being a clumsy appendage to the automobile networks we’ve created.

What do I support?

Let me be clear: I support additional spending on transportation. In fact, more spending is essential if we are to maintain the critical parts of the systems we’ve already built. Last fall I released a Kindle short detailing my approach. I named it after Governor Dayton’s stated objective: A World Class Transportation System. For a state that prides itself on being better than average, it is really sad how far from that aspiration the current proposals at the capitol are. Are we really prepared to lock ourselves into this approach for the next decade?

The world class transportation system I envision focuses on maturing our cities. I would work almost entirely on making better use of the investments we’ve already made, most of which are vastly underutilized. That’s not a simple transportation funding issue; it is thousands of messy and difficult local land use issues. How much statewide transportation funding are we going to throw at fixing bad local land use and economic development policies?

I would rely more on local transportation funding and funding mechanisms that provide nuanced feedback so we can truly determine supply and demand. I would free transit investments from the auto-funding paradigm and allow them to be the high-returning, value-creating projects they naturally are.

None of this will happen in the last few days of the legislative session, so the immediate question is: are we better off with no bill than with one of the current proposals? I believe we are.

The DFL proposal is the Move MN proposal. It would commit us to a decade of destructive investments in perpetuation of a 1950s economic model. It is inertia personified with a spoon full of bling to help bind the coalition. Minnesota is more thoughtful than this.

The Republican proposal is the perfect caricature of the American development pattern: the government building new stuff for people wealthy enough to participate using rainy day funds, debt and by cutting most everything else. This is not a serious way to govern.

We will be better off with no bill or with a short term compromise that commits us to as little expansion of the current approach as possible. Don’t let your desperation for change make you lose site of the long term trends, almost all of which are pushing for something far more transformative than the Move MN proposal.

This post was written by Charles Marohn and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (9)

Define "Congestion"?

As someone who grew up just north of Brainerd and could drive through there as a pathway to the "home country", I almost never do because of -- yes -- congestion.

The so-called Brainerd bypass is not a bypass if you are having to stop frequently for lights that control the flow of local traffic. This is especially true of the section north of the 210/371 intersection. As you go north from there towards Nisswa you run smack into all those corporate retailers and people trying to get in and out of their parking lots. A bypass should do just that, pass by the target area, not make one wait at a stop light or seven.

The other broader issue is a political one. (Figures!). Comprehensive transportation planning requires we look at all modes of moving people and goods. Yes, that means in more urban areas mass transit and yes, that means in rural areas more attention to roadways that are not high-accident corridors due to limited sight lines and such. But it's too easy for elected officials to play one group against another for political gain. Don't think that's happening? Watch and listen to just about any discussion about how the gas tax is spent and you'll hear the dog whistles abound.

Strange bedfellows?

It's very interesting to look at the "coalition partners" of Move MN. "Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, "Minnesota Environmental Partnership," the Urban League, Cancer Society.... Obviously these orgs see Move MN differently than you do. On the other hand, I know that many if not most of these orgs are more interested in being under "big tents" than exercising independent and responsible judgement about what they sign on to.

Reading some on the Move MN page, my impression is that it's basically a road lobby with token support for alternatives.

am

$50M per YEAR in bike/ped investment, not per decade

Mr. Marohn, I suggest you read the Move MN proposal and Sen. Dibble's omnibus transportation bill before criticizing. In Sen. Dibble's bill the funding for bike/ped programs is over $50M/year that would be invested into an active transportation account and dispersed through the Met Council for the metro area and MnDOT for Greater MN. I'd be happy to share the facts with you. I hope you will retract your misstatement about the level of investment in active transportation. Your math is significantly off and would in fact amount to over $500M/decade in investment in bike/ped.

Amen to no more "infrastructure" welfare for the highway lobby

Adding $500M/decade in bike/ped “investments” to $5Billion or more in highway expansion is like taking one step forward and 10 or more steps backward. Spending billions of dollars expanding the existing motorway hellholes is not going to improve living conditions for bicyclists, pedestrians, or motorists. As every metro area highway expansion since the 394 boondoggle a couple decades ago has shown, adding more lanes doesn't relieve congestion - it makes the mess bigger. With friends like Scott Dibble and the highway-industrial lobbyists that he represents, non-motorized transportation advocates don't need any enemies. Amen to no more welfare for Walmart, Cub Foods, General Motors, 3M, AECOM, Menard's, Best Buy, Burger King, MnDOT, the trucking industry and all the other vested interests looking for another “infrastructure” hand-out. If growth means more and bigger highways, give me a recession. The billions of dollars spent cleaning up the mess from, and maintaining the pavement on, an already overbuilt, unsustainable, highway system, is a poor measure of economic prosperity.

Get your facts straight about bike/ped investment

The bike/ped investment touted by Move MN and included in the Senate DFL proposal is $500M per decade, not $50M per decade as Mr. Marohn erroneously states in his piece.

Here is documentation of the actual proposal that the Senate DFL passed off the Senate floor which reflects the work of many bicycle/pedestrian advocates over the course of the last 2 years. I will refer you to two documents:
1) the side by side comparison of the House and Senate’s omnibus transportation bills HF4, http://www.senate.mn/conference_committee/2015-2016/0382_Conference_Comm... and
2) the side by side spreadsheet http://www.senate.mn/conference_committee/2015-2016/0382_Conference_Comm...

Misc. General Fund Appropriations total $6M/year in the next biennium and $3M/year in the base: In the spreadsheet you will find $3M/year for 2016-17 biennium from the general fund devoted to greater MN active transportation (line 34); $500,000/year base funding for Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure grants (line 44); $2.5M from the general fund in the base for SRTS infrastructure funding (line181). See page R6 of the Senate’s side of the side by side language for the documentation of these appropriations in the bill language.

Metro Sales Tax Increase Portion Devoted to Active Transportation: The Senate reflects the Move MN proposal to devote 10% of the proposed metro sales tax increase to active transportation. See line 488 of the spreadsheet, where the metro sales tax increase is reflected. 10% of that tax would total $63M for fiscal years 16-17 and $82.7M in FY18-19. The language in the side by side where that metro sales tax is devoted to active transportation can be found on page R115 see the Senate side lines 36.15-36.19. The remaining 90% goes to transit.

Greater Minnesota Funding: On page R96 of the side by side language, $16M/year is set aside from federal funding (National Highway Performance Program) that is not currently devoted to active transportation. That funding is to be deposited in the new Active Transportation Program for Greater MN. This is not reflected in the spreadsheet because it is a shift of federal funds, not state dollars.

Finally, language establishing a new Active Transportation Account and programs for the Metro and Greater MN are established—see pages R93-R96 of the side by side.

So for ongoing base funding the grand total is $101M for 2016-17 biennium and even more for the out years because the metro sales tax is projected to grow over time. That averages over $50M per year.

Fix it Now - Invest in Transit, Bicycling and Walking

Mr. Marohn's suggestion that nothing is better than something, or the Move Minnesota proposal, does not recognize the urgent need to make significant investments in our existing transportation system or accurately reflect the Move Minnesota proposal's priorities. It also under represents the proposed Move Minnesota investment in bicycling and walking by an order of magnitude. The Move Minnesota proposal and the Senate's bill were crafted to be comprehensive, multi-modal and sustainable. They recognize the need to invest in transit, bicycling and walking as well as roads and bridges and recommend funding and implementation strategies that are available to us now. The As noted in another comment, Move Minnesota Coalition is the first time that such a diverse group of interests have joined together. Does the campaign reflect the ideal world from the perspective of each member? Of course not. But, it does reflect political realities, the spirit of compromise and the need to do some significant things with our transportation system now, rather than nothing.

Docmumentation of $500M per decade for bike/ped in the bill

I am disappointed in the sloppy research by the author of this piece. Here is documentation of the actual proposal that the Senate DFL passed off the Senate floor which reflects the work of many bicycle/pedestrian advocates and Move MN over the course of the last 2 years. I will refer you to two documents:
1) the side by side comparison of the House and Senate’s omnibus transportation bills HF4, http://www.senate.mn/conference_committee/2015-2016/0382_Conference_Comm... and
2) the side by side spreadsheet http://www.senate.mn/conference_committee/2015-2016/0382_Conference_Comm...

Misc. General Fund Appropriations total $6M/year in the next biennium and $3M/year in the base: In the spreadsheet you will find $3M/year for 2016-17 biennium from the general fund devoted to greater MN active transportation (line 34); $500,000/year base funding for Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure grants (line 44); $2.5M from the general fund in the base for SRTS infrastructure funding (line181). See page R6 of the Senate’s side of the side by side language for the documentation of these appropriations in the bill language.

Metro Sales Tax Increase Portion Devoted to Active Transportation: The Senate reflects the Move MN proposal to devote 10% of the proposed metro sales tax increase to active transportation. See line 488 of the spreadsheet, where the metro sales tax increase is reflected. 10% of that tax would total $63M for fiscal years 16-17 and $82.7M in FY18-19. The language in the side by side where that metro sales tax is devoted to active transportation can be found on page R115 see the Senate side lines 36.15-36.19. The remaining 90% goes to transit.

Greater Minnesota Funding: On page R96 of the side by side language, $16M/year is set aside from federal funding (National Highway Performance Program) that is not currently devoted to active transportation. That funding is to be deposited in the new Active Transportation Program for Greater MN. This is not reflected in the spreadsheet because it is a shift of federal funds, not state dollars.

Finally, language establishing a new Active Transportation Account and programs for the Metro and Greater MN are established—see pages R93-R96 of the side by side.

So for ongoing base funding the grand total is $101M for 2016-17 biennium and even more for the out years because the metro sales tax is projected to grow over time. That averages over $50M per year or $500M over 10 years.

Long on Myths, Short on Facts

I seldom see so many myths, clichés and general lack of facts in one story. Generally engineers have a pretty good grasp of facts and figures but Mr. Marohn is the exception in that regard. He has either not read the bills or he has grossly miscalculated the figures. Before moving to Washington DC I served for many years on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. No organization has done more then the MTA to further the interests of a balanced transportation system, one that supports all modes of transportation. To suggest they or the Moving Mn coalition is the "road lobby' is just plain ignorant. These type of cliché based arguments assume that contractors, and engineers specialize and advocate for just one mode of transportation which is a ridiculous myth. The same people that design and build the rail and road systems are the same people that build the bike trail. they support building infrastructure, period. If citizens, state and local governments decided to put 100% of the transportation funding into bike trails instead off roads, bridges and rail they would be advocating for that too. For many years I lobbied on behalf of my family's construction company and I ever transportation as a zero sum game. We need increased funding for all modes of transportation and pitting one mode against another is counter productive and just silly. I am an avid biker and use public transportation every day. I lobbied for hundred of projects over the years. While the "big ticket" projects often get most of the headlines, getting funding for projects like Cedar Lake Trail is what I am most proud of. I agree with dramatically increasing funding for bike in investments and now live in an area where people have greater mode choices and do take advantage of those investments and bike to work. But the reality is even in urban areas where there are greater bike investments and options, road transportation is still the only or best option for the majority. Most families would love to have only one car payment and be able to live close enough to walk or ride to work but that is just not a realistic option for many, especially in rural areas. To suggest that no funding bill is better a less than perfect bill is the epitome of short sightedness. In the last two decades we have seen a transportation funding and planning change dramatically. Funding for transit is now constitutionally dedicated and there is now investments for bike where there once was none. These changes came about because advocates of all the different transportation modes began to work together rather than against each other. This article ignores history and the facts.

What?

So you start off your comment by attacking me, claiming myths, cliches and lack of facts. Okay. Then you attribute the term "road lobby" to me -- a term I did not use -- and proceed to attack that straw dog for next couple hundred words. Then you put words in my mouth by insinuating that I am holding out for a perfect bill. Did you even read what I wrote?

I made main three points in my post. They are substantive and reasonable. Why don't you read them and then provide a thoughtful critique where you disagree.

I love how you close as well: "This article ignores history and facts." Your comment ignores this article.