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How much sway does Minnesota's business community have in the transit debate?

How much sway does Minnesota's business community have in the transit debate?
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The transportation debate is changing, marked today by increasingly polarized disagreements over everything from bus lines and light rail to who can serve on metro-area transportation councils.

Heading into the 2017 legislative session in Minnesota, Jonathan Weinhagen knew light rail transit would be a contentious issue.

Over the previous two years, the CEO of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce had watched as several deals to fund transportation projects in Minnesota blew up, largely over whether or not light rail funding should be included. Then, during the 2016 election, Republican legislators who pushed back on light rail took control of both the state House and the Senate.

But he was still surprised when he saw Republicans’ first bills to fund transportation projects this year. Not only did GOP legislators continue a push against funding light rail projects, they also put no new money into existing bus lines, which state officials said would lead to cutbacks. “That’s what really struck me,” Weinhagen said. “This is no longer a discussion about debating the merits of light rail. This is an attack on our existing bus services, which I thought we all universally agreed are a good, flexible and cost effective way to move a lot of people around to a lot of jobs.”

So members of the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce spread out across the cities and suburbs, talking to people at park and rides and bus stops about cuts to transit in the Republican budgets. And they set up a website urging people to contact their legislators to stop transit service cuts.

Weinhagen called it a wake-up call for business leaders, from state and local chambers of commerce all the way up to the state’s top CEOs and executives, who’ve long played a critical role in the state’s transportation debate. In 2008, for example, business leaders teamed up with labor unions to help convince six Republican House members to vote with Democrats and override a vetoed gas tax increase, raising the tax for the first time in two decades. 

But the transportation debate is changing, marked today by increasingly polarized disagreements over everything from bus lines and light rail to who can serve on metro-area transportation councils. It’s a dynamic that has made it challenging for Minnesota’s business community — a group united in its support for mass transit — to assert its influence with Republican legislators.

“The question is, how do you break through?” Weinhagen said. “When you’re dealing with something that is just a fundamental disagreement about the merits of a system.”

The great transportation divide

Charlie Weaver has watched plenty of transportation debates over the years, both as a state legislator and as a staffer in former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office. Today he’s executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 120 CEOs and senior executives from around the state. 

In 2008, when legislators debated raising the gas tax and metro-area sales taxes, mass transit wasn’t the source of controversy it is today. “That kind of contentiousness wasn’t there then,” Weaver said. “Back then it was all about if should we raise the gas tax.”

Charlie Weaver
Charlie Weaver

But things evolved in the years that followed, for both legislators and business groups. Part-way through Dayton’s administration, the governor began pushing for another influx of transportation funding, arguing that the state needed an increase in the state’s gas tax and metro-area sales taxes to cover the costs of road and bridge projects around the state — as well as bus and transit proposals in the metro area.

In the meantime, the regional divide at the Capitol grew, with Republicans picking up seats from rural districts in the last two elections. Emboldened by their victories and the state’s budget surpluses, GOP lawmakers pushed back on the notion that the state had to raise gas taxes to put more money into transportation. They proposed to divert several hundred million dollars in existing sales taxes collected on everything from auto parts and car repairs into a fund dedicated to road and bridge projects. 

GOP lawmakers also grew increasingly agitated over one particular project: The 14-mile Southwest Light Rail Line, which would stretch from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis. Especially after the project’s price tag went up, Republicans criticized it as expensive metro-area “boondoggle” that took funding from road and bridge projects around the rest of the state.

That tension came to a head in 2016, when a deal to fund both transit and roads blew up minutes before the legislative session adjourned for the year. 

Yet even as the transportation debate was getting more heated in St. Paul, business leaders’ views on the issue were changing. For decades, executives emphasized that they needed a strong network of roads across the state to transport goods and services. But in recent years, as workers flocked to urban areas, a robust network of trains and buses became increasingly important to businesses.

“Young, talented people have crunched the numbers, and they’ve decided owning a car is too expensive,” Weaver said. “Talent is becoming more of a factor that wasn’t really there 10 years ago, the debate was more about people and goods. We want to recruit people of talent in this community and we’ve got a shortage of talent here.” 

Adding a 'different voice' to the debate

That’s not been an easy case to make to Republicans this year. The divide over transportation is now so stark that any discussion of a gas tax increase is completely off the table. Instead, Republicans have proposed diverting $300 million in auto-related sales tax revenues for transportation and about $600 million in bonding over the next two years.

Moreover, the first bills from Republicans proposed this session would have restricted any new spending on light rail lines without approval from lawmakers first. Those bills also put no money toward a more than $100 million shortfall in Metro Transit, which supports bus and transit lines through the Twin Cities.

As the session has moved along, Republicans have softened their tone on those issues, removing much of the restrictive light rail language and putting about $50 million more into Metro Transit over the next two years. “I don’t see how that can be called a cut,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, who authored the transportation bill.

Jonathan Weinhagen
Jonathan Weinhagen

Weinhagen thinks lobbying from the business community has helped move Republicans in that direction, but there are still plenty of concerns with the bill, including a remaining shortfall from Metro Transit, which could lead to service cuts. The bill also makes changes to the governance of the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning and transportation agency.

“We’ve heard some feedback from the majority caucus that, ‘We hear you loud and clear,’ but we still have a series of overly onerous policy provisions that really manifest themselves as various poison pills,” Weinhagen said. “I think we need to do a much better job of mobilizing our base.” 

Republican legislators increasingly want to hear more from constituents rather than lobbying groups or the CEOs of companies, he said, which has led business groups encouraging their members across the state to talk to their local legislator about transit and transportation.

Marie Ellis, the director of public affairs and legal counsel at the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important for the business community to add a “different voice” to the transit debate, one Republicans might not consider. “There’s a perception that people who ride transit are just environmentalists or people who don’t like cars,” she said. “The chambers and the business communities have done a good job showing the Legislature that it’s about workforce.”

Bentley Graves, the head of transportation policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the group was frustrated when a deal to fund transportation projects didn’t pass last session. In the interim, the chamber met with members and trade unions to figure out what went wrong. They decided they needed to communicate in black-and-white terms what they wanted from a transportation deal, a list that included funding for transit in the metro area.

They’ve spent the last several months — with their one-page list of transportation priorities in hand — talking with legislative leaders about including it as part of any deal this year. “I do think that it helped move the needle,” Graves said.  “We’re trying to broaden out the conversation and broaden the appeal of the message, so the business community wasn’t just trying to pitch something to Republicans and the labor community wasn’t just trying to pitch something to Democrats.” 

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Comments (36)

Deadlocked

This is what happens when you adopt a simplistic message that "government is bad." People who don't think through the nuances of an issue pick up the notion and elect people who reflect that world view. How often have we all heard "the government can't do anything right?"

Now we've got representatives who don't look into the various aspects of issues and vote according to their base. Other points of view are discounted out of hand as troublemakers to the point where they want to pass laws to outlaw protest. There is no longer even a pretense of doing anything for the common good, the betterment of society. We've devolved into tribalism where ever-smaller groups are in it for the own personal and immediate gain.

Maybe someday we can get back to programs that are for the collective good, but it's going to take a lot of hard work and arguing.

You are assuming...

...that government is good. Since the founding of our great country, the power of government needs to be limited. We are not a collective and government has proven at every step it is wasteful and is no better off than the private sector in getting things done.
Putting money where more people will use it, like roads and bridges, makes much more sense and costs less than the proven boondoggle of rail transit that always has less ridership than touted plus is only good for a very tiny fraction of people in our state.

"...and government has proven at every step it is wasteful...."

"We are not a collective and government has proven at every step it is wasteful and is no better off than the private sector in getting things done." You mean like Medicare I suppose. Or environmental protection. Or health and safety. Or....

Huh?

The Green Line average weekday ridership in 2016 was 39,386, just short of the 2030 projection of 41,000 average weekday rides. How is that "rail transit that always has less ridership than touted?"

What? Huh?

Who is proposing unlimited government? I've not heard that, so please, cite your source.

It is the height of both nonsense and hyperbole that "rail transit that always has less ridership than touted". Wait, maybe that's number 2, and "government has proven at every step it is wasteful and is no better off than the private sector in getting things done" is number 1.

Social Security retirement is the greatest government program in the history of the world, hands down, and is supported by large margins of Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, progressives, and independents. It's funding is solid, it is not going broke, and a few minor tweaks will keep it that way.

Can you name me one long term successful private fire department? Police department?

Is there a private sewer corporation that gets no public funding, only private dollars from people who choose to participate?

And finally, do you support my contention that property tax payers should not subsidize roads that serve private automobiles? Now there's a boondoggle. We don't use the gas tax to subsidize private home ownership.

Yes, but . . .

One element of the business community does have a lot of sway over some levels of government, namely real estate developers, and particularly in Ramsey County. The proposed Gold Line has been unabashedly put forward primarily to promote development. The Green Line got sited on University Avenue primarily because city and county officials thought it would promote development at five intersections (an objective yet not achieved).

It's shameful when precious transit dollars are used for a secondary purpose instead of transit.

?????

You think having light rail go by the U of M and to St Paul was a secondary purpose?
That makes no sense.

Development

Have you been on University lately? There is new apartments popping up all over the place.

That's because...

...the U always has had a housing shortage long before a rail line was ever in consideration.

On University at Dale?

You need to ride that beautiful train once. The development from downtown to downtown is astonishing. If the train was supposed to jump start development along University Avenue, it's been nothing short of a smashing success. We ought to build another dozen of them, just as fast as we can.

This statement summarizes my problem

with the whole light rail program.

"The development from downtown to downtown is astonishing. If the train was supposed to jump start development along University Avenue, it's been nothing short of a smashing success. We ought to build another dozen of them, just as fast as we can"

So is the goal moving people efficiently or jump starting redevelopment?

Because having taken the over 1 hour long, stop every quarter mile trip down University Ave, I can say from experience that this light rail line does nothing for moving people efficiently between downtowns and the U. In fact, it is about the same time as the old bus route took - minus a few amenities, higher operating costs and hundreds of millions of dollars in construction. It fails in my opinion as an efficient people mover.

Let's face it - it a very expensive, shine new toy, that attracted developers. Which is, quite frankly, a very good thing! You see - I am pro redevelopment and pro efficient transportation.

But the question is - why are we not capturing some of the tax increments being created by all the redevelopment to help pay for the rail construction costs? Capturing just half of the tax increment would surely cover the states portion of the funding and allow every rail route desired for redevelopment to be funded. But for some reason, the local governments just don't want to talk about giving up the property tax windfall they are getting as a result of all this redevelopment to help pay for the rail.

That is why many of us pause on more routes. We are not anti rail / public transportation. We don't like the way its being funded.

Goals

"So is the goal moving people efficiently or jump starting redevelopment?"

The answer is: YES.

Public transportation works best in an environment of high density. And people obviously want public transportation, so development is following the rails. Heck, I bought my house based on the ready availability of public transportation. Sadly, I switched jobs and now no longer work in Downtown where I could easily commute with public transportation. And, while I would not want to change back to my old job (I love my current one and my current employer), I really do miss not swearing like a sailor every time I commute.

False premise

"So is the goal moving people efficiently or jump starting redevelopment?"

This is the quintessential false premise: that the question needs to be either/or.

People vote with their feet. Green Line ridership is nearing its projections for 2030. Green Line ridership is higher than the Blue Lines, and the two lines together move about 33% as many people as the 100+ bus lines. Consider this fact again:

2 LRT lines are currently moving 33% as many people as 100+ bus lines

https://www.metrotransit.org/metro-transit-ridership-tops-826-million-in...

We can spin our tires in the muck of ideology until we run out of gas. That is the norm in politics. What we think people ought or ought not do can be resoundingly defeated by the reality of what people actually do. In this case, ridership shows that people are heavily using the Green Line, regardless of whatever reasons we can trump up for why they theoretically won't. Theories that do no comport with reality are vapor, and the intelligent mind changes its ideology to match the facts and does not change the facts to match its ideology.

The real world FACTS are that people are heavily using the Green Line for end-to-end and short-distance trips.

For the cost of the Green Line

we could have given one thousand businesses along University Avenue one million dollars each.

Now that would have stirred economic development.

Two years ago

Two years ago, the House repubs put forth their first bill that cut taxes for mostly the wealthy landlords in the Twin Cities and zilch for their base. On that note, you'd think the business community would have some sway with them, especially considering how they were so willing to sell out their base for the wealthy landlords like Best Buy, Mall of America, all of who contribute to them.
Travel to any of the other larger cities like Chicago and their buses and light rail are amazing and affordable for people in that horribly traffic congested area. Building more lanes does not resolve congestion...not to mention...as this article states...owning vehicles are becoming expensive, not to mention trying to pay for parking.
Another aspect of a viable transportation system is that you can receive variances for parking. In most cities, before building, you have to consider and provide parking, which ties up valuable and unprofitable space. In a city like Chicago, they can often receive variances for parking as they have such a viable transportation system.

Large Employers

What the business community wants - large employers, that is - is to locate in low-cost suburbs and then have taxpayers heavily subsidize transportation costs for their employees to get to and from work. That's why Target, Best Buy, United Healthcare, etc. built new facilities in the suburbs: they didn't want the higher costs of being in Minneapolis or St. Paul, along with the risks of being in very left-wing political environments that think Utopia can be legislated on the local level at higher costs to employers. It's the same type of self-interested argument as when employers claim that illegal immigrants are just doing "jobs that Americans won't do." That statement is empirically false, as labor statistics show, farm labor excepted. Employers want unlimited amounts of cheaper, more compliant labor, so they oppose enforcing immigration laws for low-skilled labor and also using the H1-B visa program to bring in cheaper, more compliant high tech labor which leads to layoffs of American citizens. All these facts are well-documented, although political correctness forbids journalists from so informing their readers and viewers.

But back to mass transit. The only way the Twin Cities will ever have mass transit that meaningfully reduces congestion and that is remotely cost-effective is to centralize large scale office employment in the downtowns by zoning, tax incentives, or whatever. Employment here is much too spread out and there are no natural barriers like mountains or oceans to prevent sprawl to the cheapest land. Maybe the business community could be persuaded to support such centralization of employment if the looney Left politicians in Minneapolis and St. Paul lost their power to impose higher labor costs on employers.

Suburbs cheaper to build in than downtown

Did it occur to you that it is cheaper to build and provide parking in the suburbs rather than downtown?
Again I bring up Chicago...it has people and businesses scattered throughout the city, plus they can often build without that VERY EXPENSIVE parking issue. Why? Because they can often get variances to parking because of their very viable transportation system.

Suburbs

Of course it's cheaper - usually - to build in the suburbs: I wrote exactly that in my first sentence. Chicago is far more densely populated than is the Twin Cities metro, and there's a natural barrier to the east - Lake Michigan - that prevents sprawl in that direction. Decisions about mass transit should be based on demographic and physical realities, not dreamy, anti-car ideology.

Misleading dreamy anti-car repubs

This is never about anti-car...it's about affordable and anti-polluting vehicles...to help with congestion.
Your comment is misleading.
Sure Chicago is limited by the lake and what does that have to do with urban sprawl?
Little doubt that mass transit should be based on demographic and realities, but sadly, you don't appear to be in that boat, nor is your repub party.
The cost to build a new light rail system or a highway are similar...but that is where the difference ends. If light rail becomes congested, you add more train cars or trains. When the highway become congested, you have to add more lanes at a far more expensive process...PLUS...maintenance for light rail is less...and there is less pollution.
Sadly one of the repub comments on light rail are that they're not used, but that is also misleading and if we have a viable light rail transportation system they'd be used similarly to these cities.
Again...you're misleading on this issue.

Inter-city transit

The Transportation and Bonding bills currently passed by the Legislature also de-fund any expansion of Commuter or Amtrak passenger rail, including planned trains to Duluth, St Cloud, and Milwaukee -Chicago scheduled for service by 2020, and planning for expansion to other areas of the State.

These trains would provide the benefits of mobility, economic development, and population retention to the rural areas served by GOP legislators. I their ardor to deny transit benefits to metropolitan areas, they are denying those benefits to their own rural constituents.

Reality Check

Very few people would use those proposed train routes; it would be more cost effective to provide free rides on luxury motorcoaches than to build rail lines and buy trains. The Twin Cities to Duluth idea is absurd in the extreme: how will anyone get around Duluth without a car?

reality check, part 2

Are you kidding? I want those train routes. I don't want to drive or fly to MKE or CHI when I can take a relaxing train trip. I don't go to St Cloud but I have co-workers who drive to Minneapolis from St Cloud every day for work. Train service there would actually provide them with a serious return of work/life balance.

And as for Duluth, you use a train like they use on the east coast: your car goes on the train and you enjoy a pleasant ride down to Miami and then have your car while there. But personally, there is PLENTY to do in Duluth without a car and the resorts/ski joints would definitely be sending a shuttle to pick people up at the station. Also, I know plenty of people (myself included) that want to go multi-day touring - either hiking or cycling - on the North Shore but we don't want to have to pay to leave our car somewhere. The tourism opportunities alone are significant.

A coach bus? Luxury or not, that sounds horrible, and boring, and too close to humanity. Where would I put my bike? or my skis? And you couldn't have a carriage for cars then, could you?

You

YOU want those train routes - the vast majority of people will never use them. And how much are YOU willing to pay to go to Duluth with your car on board? I know - very little, with taxpayers paying 90+% of the cost so that you can indulge your desire to have others pay for transporting your bike and skis. No way would that route ever be close to cost effective.

Repubs always claim light rail doesn't get used incorrectly

Chicago and many other large cities have very viable means of transporting their citizens at a very affordable cost...and they are used extensively.
Tired of this lame excuse that it won't get used.
Highways do little for congestion and in the long run are more expensive (maintenance) than highways.
When light rail gets congested, you only need to add more cars or trains rather than the far far far more expensive alternative of building more lanes. By the way, building more lanes does not solve congestion issues. Don't believe this, check out the massive highways in some of our large cities...nothing but traffic gridlock.

Reality Check

The planned trains operate on existing freight rights of way. The rail lines already exist, and if any upgrades are necessary they are much less expensive than building and maintaining highways. Trains are more energy efficient and lower cost per passenger mile than planes, buses, or cars.There is less wear and tear on the highways by diverting passengers to passenger rail.

Regarding little ridership, the people in Duluth, Hinckley, Cambridge, St Cloud, Redwing, Winona, and their surrounding areas who don't have access to other forms of reliable transportation, other than cars,seem to think differently.

And, how to get around in Duluth? Transit!

Republicans are Funny

I was riding a fast train from Rome to Florence last summer with a Republican friend. He actually pondered aloud, "I wonder why we don't have awesome trains like this in the United States?" I just broke out laughing. "Because we have Republicans." We will never have first world infrastructure, and will continue falling behind the civilized world in every respect as long as we have to put up with Republicanism.

We were traveling about 340 kilometers per hour, or about 210 MPH. Not bad for a train. In Italy. A country we used to make fun of for not having anything that ran on time. 45 minutes to downtown Duluth from Minneapolis? You wouldn't need a car, you could just buzz up to Duluth for an afternoon, and then just ride back home that evening. Using wind and solar, it would be a carbon free ride. You could even enjoy a bottle of wine on the way back, worry free.

Feet?

"... how will anyone get around Duluth without a car?"

Are you kidding? Duluth is benefiting more and more from tourism. People aren't going there to drive around town--they're going there to hang out in Duluth's new tourist meccas. And they are supremely walkable. I would happily hop a train to Duluth, wander around the lake's edge, eat a little bit, drink a little bit, maybe stay the night, and take a train back home.

Businesses need road & bridge capacity

Businesses need road & bridge capacity to move commercial goods.It is really that simple.

I look back to 1971 when we moved to MN. The Twin City road system was EXCELLENT for a population of only 1 million. Fast forward to 2017 and we have a population of 3.5 million yet road capacity is only about 30% greater than in 1971. It is no wonder we have road congestion! Shame on our governors and legislatures over the last 45 years!

Shame on repubs for resisting light rail

Shame on repubs for resisting, not only light rail, but a viable means of investing in our infrastructure

Further explanation

It appears that the heaviest use of the Green Line occurs between downtown Minneapolis and the U of M area where the most tax-productive development has taken place because of the need for housing as Bob Peterson noted above.

For a detailed discussion of what went wrong with the Green Line, see "Strangulation on the Green Line, on the streets.mn website, which considers the merits of alternatives as well as the planning and approval process.

Contrast with Denver

After living in the Twin Cities area for 21 years, I moved to the Denver area 3 years ago. The difference in attitudes about light rail is fascinating. The system here is expansive and continuing to develop. It doesn't seem to generate huge controversy. The benefits are obvious.

Chamber owned GOP

The Chamber says "jump" Mn Republicans ask "how high?"

Of course the media here is all on board with the asinine SWLRT, a route that only makes sense to developers waiting to line their pockets.

Wait until they start building the elevated train in Eden Prairie over the damp soil near Pergatory Park. The cost will skyrocket.

2 billion for a line running from absolutely nothing on Eden Prairie-- well until more government housing is built-- to United Health through the chain of lakes and Kenwood to the Twins stadium. Meanwhile 494 west is clogged 24/7 & could be fixed for maybe $200 million.

How funny that $700k a year Mr Weaver-- who got rich in "public service"-- informs us that young people can't afford cars. Hmmm. Now why is that? What's gone wrong with student loans, big government spending, & crony capitalism that's caused that?

Don't ask. Spend!

The problem is...

You have one branch of the Republican Party fighting with another branch of the Republican Party. The "business" community has been supporting Republican agendas reflexively for decades, and now that they've helped put Republicans in power they're surprised to find out what the Republican agenda is? Well, that's the private sector for you.

Raise fares!

An entire article and not one mention of raising the fares for those who want mass transit.

Typical Republican/Libertarian response:

Stick it to the people who can least afford it: the poor, the elderly, young people struggling to build careers, the disabled. God forbid that the affluent consider themselves part of society.

Thirty years of print and broadcast media glorifying ruthless businessmen and the idle rich, along with two generations who studied nothing but numbers-oriented business courses in college, and we have doubled or tripled the percentage of the population who think that their money makes them a separate and infinitely better breed of human being.

Well...

Nor does the article doesn't talk about raising gas taxes for people who DON'T want mass transit, but since the article's not about fares and gas taxes that's not really much of a surprise.