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. 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.

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 11/27/2007 - 08:35 am.

    The sideshow that has evolved with Commissioner Molnau will detract from the larger discussion of transportation needs and how to fund them. With a souring economy, adding to the gasoline tax will make life more challenging for those in the middle- and lower-income brackets.

    We in the general public are left with the impression (rightly or wrongly) that if the Commissioner does not voluntarily step aside, the Minnesota Senate will oblige and do it for her. If that is the case, a quiet return to her other job as Lt. Governor would defuse at least some of the rancor that will undoubtedly be spewing in the next few months.

    Depending on whose numbers you look at, it would appear that the economy is, at best, in neutral. Our elected officials need to focus their legislative work on Minnesota rather than just the Lt. Governor of Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Jim Erkel on 11/27/2007 - 10:01 am.

    In her article “Progress coalition pushing increased transportation funds,” Sarah Janecek identifies the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) as a member of Progress in Motion which paid for the “No New Taxes Means No New Bridges” billboard on Highway 280. Although it participated in the Vote Yes campaign last fall and has discussed strategies for securing more funding for roads and transit with a broad array of organizations as the 2008 session approaches, MCEA is not a member of Progress in Motion.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/27/2007 - 02:36 pm.

    My original story did, indeed, indicate that the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy was part of Progress in Motion. While the Center has been meeting with others about increasing transportation funding, it has not officially joined the group (and thus helped pay for the billboard). My apologies for any confusion.

  4. Submitted by Dave VanHattum on 11/28/2007 - 04:05 pm.

    The transportation package that the Governor vetoed last Spring did not include “a dime increase in the gas tax and a new 2.5 cent sales tax in the metro area dedicated for transit.”

    Rather it was a new 0.5 cent sales tax in the metro area with 50% of that dedicated to public transit, 25% dedicated to metro roads, and 25% allocated for flexible use between roads and transit.

    In addition, the package included a nickel increase in the gas tax, with additional increases in the gas tax–not to exceed 2.5 cents per gallon–triggered by the level of debt service from new trunk highway bonds.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/06/2007 - 02:29 pm.

    In the interest of good journalism, please edit your article to include the correct information about the vetoed transportation bill. Mr. Van Hattum is right: the proposed metro-wide sales tax was .5 cents. The 2.5 cents you mention is known as a debt service surcharge. It is meant to begin paying off the ridiculous amount of bonding debt our state is carrying.

    You clearly corrected the bit about MCEA; why won’t correct this?

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/07/2007 - 01:38 pm.

    In the interest of full disclosure, Kelly might have included the fact that she is Steve Murphy’s aide de camp.

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