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Progress coalition pushing increased transportation funds

“Billboard Driving Alert: No New Taxes Means No New Bridges.”
That’s the provocative message on a billboard that appeared along Minnesota 280 just before the holiday weekend.

“Billboard Driving Alert: No New Taxes Means No New Bridges.”

That’s the provocative message on a billboard that appeared along Minnesota 280 just before the holiday weekend. It’s no coincidence that the sign, sponsored by a new group called Progress in Motion, appeared along the officially designated Interstate 35W bridge bypass.

Ever since the bridge fell, a consortium of groups that want to increase transportation funding has been meeting to try to figure out how to break the impasse between Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature. But rather than confining their case only to policy-makers, the groups have decided to take the campaign directly to the public by creating Progress in Motion.

“That one billboard is just a mere tease of what’s to come,” says Rick Krueger, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, who will also head Progress in Motion. Besides the alliance, the new group includes road and bridge contractors, the Association of Minnesota Counties, the League of Minnesota Cities, engineers and transit and environmental groups.

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New effort to build on Vote Yes success
Krueger describes Progress in Motion as “an outgrowth” of last year’s Vote Yes campaign, which also included support from the business community. The effort raised and spent $3.6 million — all from the private sector — to influence public opinion and pass last year’s transportation amendment. The effort was wildly successful, garnering 57 percent support among voters. The amendment provides for the phased-in dedication of the motor vehicle sales tax to fund highways (not more than 60 percent of proceeds) and public transit (at least 40 percent). Krueger predicts the Progress in Motion group will equal or surpass the Vote Yes effort.

Notably missing from the Progress in Motion member roster is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, a key member of Vote Yes. The chamber won’t formally join Progress in Motion, says the chamber’s communications director, Jim Pumarlo. However, the chamber has supported a nickel gas tax increase and recently, its president, David Olson, told those attending a Central Minnesota Transportation Alliance meeting in St. Cloud that the chamber may support more than a nickel going forward.

“That was in response to an audience question,” Olson says. “Our official position is still a nickel, but we’re kicking around a lot of ideas, including more than a nickel. The chamber wants something to finally get done on transportation funding.”

Bumpy road ahead for effort
Certainly Progress in Motion has a tough road ahead (sorry). The key figures in the transportation funding debate have seemingly intractable positions. In the past, Pawlenty has stuck with the “no new taxes” pledge and vetoed all transportation funding packages that have included tax increases. Right after the bridge fell, Pawlenty said he might consider a nickel-a-gallon gas tax increase, but he withdrew that offer when DFL legislative leaders announced their “starting point” would be the package Pawlenty vetoed last spring. That package included a dime increase in the gas tax and a new 2.5 cent sales tax in the metro area dedicated for transit. For Democrats and many transit advocates, a “permanent” new source of funding for transit is non-negotiable.

Complicating matters is an August poll taken by SurveyUSA for KSTP that found that 57 percent Minnesotans oppose a gas tax increase, while 38% support such a move.

In related developments, the Association of General Contractors’ legislative committee voted last week to call for the resignation of Carol Molnau as transportation commissioner.

“We have come to the realization that we don’t have confidence in the current transportation leadership team,” says David Semerad, AGC’s CEO and executive director. The full board will vote on the matter this week and then send a letter to Pawlenty.

This isn’t the first time that the AGC, a group that includes many Republican heavy hitters, has opposed the Pawlenty Administration. The AGC opposed an Administration proposal to have private contractors provide up-front financing for the Crosstown reconstruction.