One way to evaluate officials’ performances during the just-ended legislative session is to ask the question: How far did they go in preparing Minnesotans for the difficult lifestyle changes required to cope with three big global challenges — rising energy costs, a warming climate and an oil-driven foreign policy?
Considering the baby steps of recent years, they went pretty far, although clearly not far enough. The price of gasoline rose by nearly a dollar per gallon while the Legislature was in session — from $2.88 in February to $3.75 today. Meanwhile, the state’s greenhouse gas emissions have been rising faster than the nation’s for most of the past 20 years (PDF).
Here’s a closer look at what the session accomplished — and failed to accomplish:
Transportation choices: The Legislature’s override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation veto in February was truly historic. The six Republicans who joined the DFL majority may suffer retribution at the polls in November. But it’s hard not to see the desperate shape of the state’s transportation system, as so tragically illustrated by the Minneapolis bridge collapse and other subsequent bridge closings; and it’s hard not to expect a tax increase to pay for decades of neglect on this important matter. The state’s 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax had not been raised since 1988.
The new law will amass an additional $6.6 billion over 10 years. Beyond the obvious economic benefit of finally having enough money to fix and expand the road system, other strategic values accrue. Moving traffic more efficiently cuts air pollution and gasoline consumption — despite the danger that overbuilt roads could induce excessive driving. And catching up with other states on infrastructure allows Minnesota to begin planning for the more creative transportation options that the future demands.
“It was hard not to think just about the traditional approach until this was done, but now there’s a sense that we’ve turned the corner,” said Margaret Donohoe, director of the Transportation Alliance of Minnesota, an industry group.
Expect more fees, partnerships
“We’re in a new transportation era,” she said, one that will require more fee-based solutions and partnerships among governments and the private sector.
One emerging idea is to charge drivers by the mile, either by tolling or mileage taxing. Another is to charge drivers for the congestion and pollution they cause when entering crowded areas — and use the money to operate transit. New York lawmakers turned down Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal for mid- and lower Manhattan, but the plan will be back. Indeed, finding ways to assess drivers something closer to the full cost of driving (which by some estimates exceeds $10 per gallon of gasoline) will be hard to avoid in future years.
In that sense, the most important feature of Minnesota’s new transportation law is not the additional gasoline-tax revenues but the new sales-tax revenues dedicated to transit expansion in the metropolitan area. New funding, provided by a quarter-cent rise in the tax on general sales, will allow a consortium of five metro counties to schedule and actually build light-rail lines in the Central, Southwest and possibly the Bottineau corridors, while expanding express-bus and commuter-rail service elsewhere in the metro area.
That means that Minneapolis-St. Paul will finally join its peer cities in offering an attractive alternative to the auto-only lifestyle. Such an alternative is already an important competitive advantage in an era in which oil prices have soared to exceed $135 per barrel.
True rail system will develop
“The dedicated source was a huge leap forward for transit,” said Dave Van Hattum, legislative director for the advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities. Adding the sales-tax revenues to previous motor-vehicle sales-tax money will provide two-thirds of the new funding needed to build out the Twin Cities transit system over the next quarter century, he said.
Transforming the original Hiawatha line into a true system carries exponential benefits that residents won’t entirely grasp until a network of coherent and dependable train and bus lines are in place. Only then will it be plain that there are real options to the car that save energy, reduce greenhouse gas pollution and lessen foreign oil dependence.
Central corridor: Those wider goals were further served when the final bipartisan deal struck last weekend kept the Central Corridor light-rail project on schedule. Without the $70 million in bonding this session, the state would have lost $450 million in federal funds for the line. A disagreement with the University of Minnesota over the line’s route through campus remains a problem, however. A final decision is expected from the Metropolitan Council next week.
Urban Partnership Agreement: Included in the larger transportation bill was an important state match for $133 million in federal money to transform the Interstate Hwy. I-35W corridor between Lakeville and downtown Minneapolis. Exclusive toll lanes for cars and Bus Rapid Transit and will be added, and Marquette and Second avenues will be redesigned to accommodate nearly all city-suburban bus service.
Mall of America parking: On a related front, the governor and Legislature may have established an important principle by not providing a state or regional subsidy for free parking at the Mall of America’s proposed second phase. To have subsidized free parking would have made a state priority of more driving, more energy consumption and more pollution. The final deal did authorize higher taxes on sales, hotel rooms, food and beverages in Bloomington. Whether the city will move forward alone on those taxes to finance a $200 million parking structure remains to be seen.
Bicycle-hiking bridge: The old Cedar Avenue bridge between Bloomington and Burnsville will be restored for biking and hiking.
A new park and the legacy amendment. The first new state park in several decades will add value to what Minnesotans most love about their state: its natural features, especially its lakes. Initial funding for the Lake Vermillion State Park was part of the session’s final deal. Earlier, legislators decided to offer voters the opportunity next November to amend the constitution (the so-called legacy amendment), allowing a dedicated source of money to sustain the quality of lakes, rivers and streams, as well as to preserve natural areas and aid arts and culture.
Some missed opportunities
Despite considerable progress, however, the governor and Legislature missed a number of opportunities.
Cleaner cars: They failed to pass a bill requiring that all new cars and light trucks sold after 2012 meet California’s stricter emissions standards. Adopting those standards, as 13 other states have done, could reduce Minnesota’s greenhouse-gas emissions by as many as 13 million metric tons by 2025, for a savings of $260 million, according to some members of the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group. Many current models — including vans, pickups and SUVs — already meet clean-car standards.
Biofuel incentives: They did not pass incentives for farmers to plant native-grass energy crops. Growing more and more corn and soybeans for fuel has damaged the environment and caused turmoil in world food markets.
Cap and trade: The governor and legislators backed away from decisive action to instead fund two studies that may lead Minnesota to join a Midwestern coalition of states intent on limiting carbon emissions. The idea would be to set a regional limit, or cap, on air pollutants, then to allow industries to trade pollution credits with one another, with the goal of not exceeding the regional cap.
Transit-oriented development: Legislation providing tax incentives to locate jobs near transit lines did not survive. Under current provisions it’s too easy for employers to simply lease cheap space in auto-oriented office parks and push the extra cost of auto commuting onto employees, rather than choosing a location with transit choices. Aside from the limited Livable Communities grant program, no major incentives are offered for doing something that holds huge potential for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and energy consumption: concentrating jobs and other prime destinations near transit lines.
According to a report from the Urban Land Institute, projected increases in driving will wipe out any gains made in fuel efficiency standards by 2030 unless development becomes more compact and less car-dependent.
Smarter planning and development strategies were among the 46 policy initiatives — ranging from building codes to biofuels to carbon caps — proposed in Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group’s final report, issued in April. Only one of the initiatives (on green building codes) was adopted.
Much work lies ahead. The Next Generation Energy Initiative enacted in 2007 requires Minnesota to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Expectations will be higher next session, said Steve Morse, director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, an advocacy group. “The truth is that all 46 of those need to be adopted to give us a reasonable shot at meeting our targets on global warming,” he said, adding that, so far, the trend has been to water down our challenges and to cling tightly to our current lifestyles.
In that sense, Jim Erkel, transportation director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, described the session as a mixed bag. While battles were won on transportation, the war against energy waste and global warming seems to be stuck in neutral. “We needed to do all of these things yesterday,” he said. “But now it feels like we’re dying the death of a thousand cuts.”
Steve Berg, a former Washington, D.C., bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.