Pothole Pawlenty Packs a Punch

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OK, so I'm no fan of freeways. In fact, there's probably nothing I hate more in this world than an inner city interstate, and I really don't like the idea of throwing money at the Department of Transportation so that they can fuel the TC's all-you-can-eat sprawl. But that doesn't mean I want to see interstates crash into the river.

For some time now on this blog, I've been trying unsuccessfully to get the nickname Tim 'Pothole' Pawlenty into the local vernacular. I thought that the pothole was the perfect symbol for the Tim's tenure in state government. It symbolizes the gradual degradation of our government, the way that little cuts here and there start to add up and multiply until eventually you're driving on a cheese grater, the schools suck, and the city you love starts to resemble Detroit. Plus, potholes are kind of funny, and they're something everyone can relate to. They're the Fred Basset of transportation. I never thought, though, that a pothole could cause an interstate to fall into the river. But in a way, that's very literally what might (might) have happened. Of course, we won't know what actually happened for a very long time, if ever.

And I don't want to literally blame Pawlenty for the bridge falling down. That would be kind of like blaming Bush for 9/11. (How could he have known?) Instead, I want to blame the libertarian ideology that Governor Pothole espouses, and that's dominated US politics for the last twenty-five years. In a Ronald Reagan world where "government is the problem," it should come as no great surprise when levies break and bridges tumble. No, the problem is much bigger than our local Tim, but it still annoys me when I see him on TV uttering the word catastrophe.

And so, in the interest of not blaming Pothole Pawlenty for the I-35 bridge disaster, I've put together a 'best of' complation of the Star Tribune's Lexis-Nexis results about our governor and the state's transportation budget. There's quite a history to enjoy.

(Remember, I'm not blaming. "I'm just saying...")

"Clearly, traffic and traffic congestion and road and bridges are increasing in importance as a political issue [and] as a policy issue, and politicians respond to that," said House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan.

"You go out in the suburbs and people are increasingly torqued."

Ventura has proposed adding $95 million to the $1 billion-plus budget for road and bridge maintenance and construction in the next two-year period.

Pawlenty and other key legislators say additional spending for roads, bridges and transit is likely this session.

The argument for new spending received additional fuel Wednesday with the findings of a study that asserts that Minnesota's highways, bridges and local roads could face nearly $8 billion in unfunded repair and replacement needs over the next decade. (Mpls Star Tribune 2/15/01)

Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty said Friday that the state's projected $4.56 billion budget deficit means that his plans for billions of dollars of new investment in roads and bridges will have to be scaled back.

"It's not going to be as bold or dramatic as we'd like," he said during a visit to the State Capitol complex offices of the Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "But it is possible to move the ball forward somewhat."

Road building and repair are not directly affected by the general fund deficit because they are mostly financed by dedicated taxes on gasoline, vehicle sales and registrations.

During the election campaign, Pawlenty opposed other candidates' calls for increasing the state gasoline tax, which has stood at 20 cents a gallon since 1988, to spur highway construction. Instead, he urged new state borrowing of $1 billion to $2 billion, which he suggested could be repaid with future payments on the state's $6.1 billion settlement with the tobacco industry. (Mpls Star Tribune 12/7/02)

Gov. Pawlenty had originally proposed to use $130 million in cash from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to help solve the budget deficit. His plan was to issue bonds to replace that money, which was earmarked for road projects.

But when the Legislature was unable to agree on a budget-balancing package and Pawlenty was forced to act alone, he did not have legislative authority to issue bonds, said Bruce Briese, MnDOT director of financial planning and analysis.

Instead, the governor lifted $20 million from MnDOT that had not yet been committed to construction projects.

That means some projects may not go forward or the cuts will be made elsewhere, unless the money is replenished through bonds, Briese said. (Mpls Star Tribune 2/8/03)

More than 1,300 of the 35,000 state jobs in Minnesota could be eliminated by the end of June as part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to deal with a $4.2 billion projected budget deficit, with major reductions coming in the Transportation and Corrections departments.

Workers began receiving layoff notices last week, but because of a complicated system in which senior employees are able to "bump" others to retain their paychecks, it may take several weeks before it is clear who will be given a pink slip.

Although agency heads will be given some leeway in determining how to cut costs, an analysis of Pawlenty's budget by the largest union for state workers shows where the possible cuts may come. Observers on all sides caution that the numbers are preliminary.

In the Transportation Department, 295 positions in the 5,100-worker department are targeted, but some would include early retirements and unfilled vacancies. Peter Benner, executive director of District 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union representing state workers, said such things as 24-hour snow and ice removal could be affected by those layoffs. (Mpls Star Tribune 2/25/03)

If, however, the object is to make meaningful progress against mounting Twin Cities traffic congestion, then the governor has accomplished very little. No one should be misled by newspaper headlines boasting of a "billion-dollar road trip." Even Pawlenty acknowledges that his is a modest proposal, not a "be-all, end-all plan." In saying that, he has come close to conceding that additional taxes will be needed to make actual headway. For that bit of intellectual honesty Minnesotans should be grateful.

Any who doubt that more taxes will be needed should consider this number: $750 million. That's the additional sum it will take every year for 20 years for traffic not to get worse in the metro area. Pawlenty's plan borrows and leverages only a quarter of that _ $200 million extra per year for the next five years for the whole state. That's enough to fix a handful of two dozen metro bottlenecks. It's not enough to add lanes to the beltway or to build the new transit lines and connective bus routes the region needs so badly. For that to happen, a whole array of fees and taxes must be raised. That's an unpleasant prospect, but so is a future in which traffic diminishes Minnesota's quality of life and becomes a disincentive to growth and prosperity.

What makes Pawlenty's modest plan risky is that it squeezes money out of road maintenance and administration to finance new construction. It may well be proper to cut administrative costs, but safety is a serious question, and Minnesota's severe climate demands that the state care for the roads it already has before adding more. (Mpls Star Tribune 3/23/03)

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and rival legislators took their deadlocked negotiations over transportation funding public on Friday, accusing each other of impeding progress on much-needed improvements in roads, bridges and transit.

"We have stalled out, we have run into congestion, we have a roadblock in the form of the Senate DFL," Pawlenty said at a news conference.

An hour later, DFLers responded at their own gathering with reporters. Pawlenty "says it's our way or the highway; then he refuses to pay for the highway," said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon.

At stake is the governor's five-year, $1.1 billion plan to speed up road building, with half of the funds borrowed over 20 years. DFLers originally proposed a $2.1 billion package financed by a higher gasoline tax and vehicle registration renewal fees, but they dropped it in the face of Pawlenty's opposition to such revenue-raisers.

Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger, DFL-St. Peter, characterized it as "a balanced solution . . . paid for in a fiscally responsible way." DFLers complained that the Pawlenty plan would cost taxpayers $300 million in interest over 20 years while cutting more than $10 million from transit funding.

Pawlenty, meanwhile, suggested that DFLers and business groups were resisting his plan as too small a step toward catching up with long-term transportation infrastructure needs of up to $20 billion.

"The standard shouldn't be do it all or do none," he said. "We should do what we can." (Mpls Star Tribune 5/24/03)

In his written statement, Pawlenty strongly defended Molnau's performance, crediting her for the largest road, bridge and transit package in state history.

"The lieutenant governor has brought a new brand of common sense to MnDOT, with a major restructuring that has dramatically improved efficiency and effectiveness," he said. "Today's vote [to reject her appointment as Transportation Commissioner] was a sad display of partisanship and a huge disservice to Minnesotans. The vote was not about qualifications, but was legislative payback for a reform-minded leader who is an agent of change." (Mpls Star Tribune 3/31/04)

To avoid increasing the gas tax, Pawlenty 's administration will sell $400 million in state bonds and use that money to attract $425 million in advance construction financing from the federal government. Budget juggling at MnDOT freed $100 million for safety improvement projects.

Altogether this provides about $900 million that will speed up the start of 12 projects around the state. About $30 million in bonds have been sold to date, according to MnDOT.

The decision to borrow rather than raise the gas tax to bring in extra money for roads and transit remains a political issue for DFLers who would have preferred a pay-as-you-go approach to extra construction, said DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson. (Mpls Star Tribune 4/7/04)

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the transportation bill almost guarantees another year will pass without meaningful progress on one of Minnesota's biggest problems. The condition and safety of outstate roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate. Metro freeways won't be expanded to meet population growth, and the transit system will continue to shrink just as it should be growing. (Mpls Star Tribune 5/21/05)

In an interview Friday, Pawlenty said he doesn't regret his veto of the 10-cent-per-gallon tax increase. Critics of his transportation policy should look at the 18 projects that his plan has delivered, he said.

"Yes, there have been some hiccups, but we have done more for transportation than any administration in modern history, a 20- to 40-percent-a-year increase in construction on my watch," he [Pawlenty] said. (Mpls Star Tribune 7/4/06)

Business interests are back in St. Paul this year arguing in support of a Pawlenty administration proposal to allow heavier trucks on Minnesota highways. The Legislature's answer should be simple and direct: Put your proposal away until Minnesota's highways and bridges are fully, adequately funded to handle existing commercial traffic. (Mpls Star Tribune 4/17/07)

"Coming forward with a big gas tax increase on a day when the gas price in Minnesota is $3.02 a gallon shows these DFLers have lost touch with the real world," [Pawlenty’s spokesman Brian McClung] said. (Mpls Star Tribune 5/10/07)

[Pawlenty] said the transportation bill, with its $5 billion in assorted tax and fee increases, would impose an "unnecessary and onerous burden on Minnesotans that could weaken the state's economy." (Mpls Star Tribune 5/16/07)

"I suggested to legislative leaders early on that if they put Senator Pogemiller in the driver's seat he's going to take them over the cliff, and I think that's where they're headed," Pawlenty said at an impromptu news conference moments after the signing. (Mpls Star Tribune 5/17/07)

I not saying there's a pattern here, or anything.


Columns in the media that get it right...

Nick Coleman's Column

Miles Spicer's Opinion Piece

Popular Mechanics Column



Anonymous said...

Under proper libertarianism, there would be no publicly subsidized state highways. The private railroads and transit operators would still be in business. The city would still be compact, and vibrant.

It is the program of state funded freeway building that put our railroads and streetcar systems out of business and made suburban sprawl possible.

While the automobile would have taken away some market share from the existing modes, sufficient congestion would have resulted quickly enough to cap market share at under 20%. We might have seen privately financed subways by the 1960's if not for the program of freeway building.

Now that we've built a freeway system so large that we can't afford to maintain it anymore, the only rational decision is to figure out which parts of the freeway system to abandon as such. Naturally, the inner city freeway routes make the most sense for initial removal, along with restoration of the original street grid.

Bill Lindeke said...

I'd like to believe you, I just can't. Wasn't it private enterprise (in the form of GM's shadow companies) that purchased and removed the streetcar systems in the 50's?

Railroads were privately funded, but that came with a large cost as well. (environmental damage, steep social stratification)

Government and private enterprise are so frequently intertwined now, its almost impossible to think one without the other. Where would Halliburton be without the US Military?

Anonymous said...

The streetcar systems of the United States began their decline in the 1920's, as they had more capacity than was necessary. Government intervention in their fare structure, forcing unprofitable routes to be maintained, accelerated their decline.

However, it was only the construction of the freeway systems that made streetcars unable to survive. Without government funded freeways, the value of the streetcar systems would have been too high for GM to afford. It was only with the massive losses of major urban streetcar systems in 1948-1960 that made the broke systems so easy to buy and shut down.

GM is a company with no corporate ethics. It was they that pushed for massive public investment in freeway infrastructure during that period.

It will be the return of private, profitable, streetcar systems that will mark a return to normalcy.

Anonymous said...

I like the name "Pothole Pawlenty". If the cost of fixing everything with only a gas tax increase is 35 cents a gallon, then passing a 5 cent increase should be a minimum investment. Borrowing and abandoning some parts of the highway system, maybe. But I would start from a balanced budget goal. Stupid self-interested republicans have made no new taxes more of a matra than having a balanced budget, to the point they have become the "Borrow and Spend" party.