Dayton Begins the DFL Transportation Debate with a Modest Proposal

["You're still there? Why are you still there? Get away from me!"]
It's been an interesting month. It began with a massive election night hangover from drinking too much RomneyFAIL Schadenfreude®, but not long after the headache started to fade, I found myself fantasizing. Waking up and finding the DFL in control of state politics after twenty years of watching Tim Pawlenty egowrestle with Jesse Ventura is like wandering through a vast desert in search of water, only to happen across a broken down Culligan Water truck sticking out of a sand dune. You're not sure if there's anything in there, but it's certainly exciting.

Naturally, I allowed my imagination to wander. I let fantasies carry my mind away into the world of urban fiction, places where you don't have to wait an hour for a bus, Walmart isn't subsidized, and bridges no longer fall into rivers. Yes, now is the time to dream.

The Governor's First Transportation Salvo

[All of this money will go to fund new freeway bridges to Wisconsin.]
Well, last week the Governor's office started the transportation conversation by releasing the draft results of a "task force" consisting of a few state legislators and a bunch of people from different state transportation agencies (MNDOT and Met Council). (Is a "task force" the same thing as a "blue ribbon commission?") It's a short document, listing a few vague priorities, but presents the initial "offer" for the coming debate over Minnesota's upcoming budget.

There are two key changes. First, fulfilling Tom Friedman's liberal obsession, there would be a ten-cent hike in the state gas tax (or, as the task force puts it with amusing delicacy, an "increase in per-gallon excise tax rate on motor-fuels”). This would go up a bit each year, and would raise $10-12 billion over twenty years, all of which would go to roads. (That's a 61% increase in funding.)

Second, there is a big 200% increase in the (five county) metro area sales tax devoted to transit. This would raise about $5 billion over twenty years, which would go to maintenance and construction for metro area transit. (That's a 59% increase in funding.)

There are a few other minor changes, suggestions about loosening the reigns on local governments ability to raise their own revenue, and increasing the role of MN-PASS (toll) lanes.

[An impossible confusing chart. Note the ratios of transit to road funding.]

Five Lingering Questions

First, there's the issue of the geography of transit funding. As part of my 'wish list' fantasy, I wrote the following:

But what's the best case scenario? Well, the first thing might be a more stable source of everyday maintenance revenue for Metro Transit. If there was a better pot of money that would keep them from having to desperately beg the legislature every two years (like there is with the state gas tax), that would take a lot of political pressure off groups like the Met Council. We'd actually be able to count on a stable transit system. (I remember this being a political issue a few years ago. I'm not sure how it got resolved back then.) In the best of all possible worlds, this funding stream would allow Metro Transit to actually cut fares in half, to levels that poor people can actually afford, and that would make taking transit as appealing as apple pie (in the sky).

The dedicated sales tax is a step in that direction. It would boost to the stability of the Metro Transit system. The only catch is that, by restricting the tax area to the metro area, it creates a geographical divide. Roads are paid for by everyone, including the core cities and suburbs, whereas transit is paid for by only the metro area. Would this make transit funding more unequal? Might it have negative political consequences (make it seem unfair for the metro area, especially the more suburban counties)?

Second, would this increase be primarily for everyday maintenance or for new capital costs? In other words, would this money be used to pay for things like the SouthWest LRT line (which will surely get funded in this year's session)?  Probably, yes. This is a good example of why the geographic funding mechanism is important. This plan would shift 'who pays' for the SW-LRT from 'the entire state' to being just the five (or seven) county metro area.

Third, there's a "passenger rail" wild card in the governor's funding spreadsheet. It lists "$5-7 billion for passenger rail", but doesn't spend any time explaining this. Is this pot of money for things like High Speed rail to Chicago or the Northern Lights Express? Where does this come from?

Fourth: Why is there not one mention of bicycling or walking? 

Finally, Will the gas tax actually happen? If it does, how much of the new road money will be for maintenance of the existing road and highway system? How much of it will be for expanding capacity? Will MN-DOT's priorities shift away from bridges to nowhere and toward expensive and badly needed upkeep?

[Might be time to update Pawlenty's MN-DOT logo?]
Not Great, but One Hell of an Improvement

There are two main conclusions to draw from the governor's task force. The first is that it's not good enough. This is a conservative plan, that hedges its bets. The draft document repeats over and over again how it wants to create an "economically competitive / world class transportation system," but only devotes 1/3 of the new money to transit. The measure of a world class system will be transit in the Twin Cities, and this proposal would keep the Twin Cities on its slow snail's pace, crawling toward its urban future. (For example, would this be enough to fund the proposed streetcar systems for Minneapolis and St Paul?) This plan might reflect the state's political geography, but it will keep Minnesota stuck in their cars.

The second conclusion is that we're sure a lot better off than we were last year. Compared to the exhausting 'no new taxes' mantra pouring out of the GOP tailpipe for the last few years / decades, having a debate about how much new money to invest in transportation is a big improvement. Instead of debating about whether our transit system should exist at all, we're debating how much new money to give to it. That's a big improvement, and I look forward to some more visionary suggestions (especially from the DFL house).

[This loon has been wandering the desert for the last twenty years. Maybe now it'll find some water.]

PS: Does anyone know if this task force began meeting before the election? Or was it convened afterwards?


Gene said...

It's "loosening the reins," not "reigns."

Bill Lindeke said...

Oopsseees! Thanks for this. I'm putting my copy editor on notice.