“It’s like building a Vikings’ stadium in a single season,” said State Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle – Star Tribune, April 3rd
To anyone who followed the Minnesota Vikings’ new publicly-financed stadium, this quote should make you cringe.
In a quest to improve quality of life, Minnesota is pouring $1.1 billion into road projects this summer; the same amount being dedicated to a new stadium. Upon hearing this, most people should have two questions:
1) Wait a minute! We spent how much on a new football stadium? And,
2) Besides maintenance, Minnesota’s road network is built-out, so where’s this money going?
To answer these questions;
1) Yes. We spent an obscene amount of money on a football stadium, and
2) Well, this one is more difficult to answer …
Minnesota has the 5th most paved miles in the United States with approximately 283,828 miles. The numbers don’t look good when weighed to population and population density. This is a big system that needs a lot of maintenance. Yet, while admitting we can’t afford our existing roadways under our current system, we always seem to come up with more money for expansion projections.
It's like we're shooting ourselves in the foot and we don't know it.
We have a cultural misunderstanding about of benefits of mobility. We lack the understanding of what to build and where to build. The $1.1 billion being spent over the course of this summer is turning out to be more of the same. It’s less road diet and more bypass.
Many of these projects are an extension of the Corridors of Commerce program designed to foster “economic growth with transportation investments.” This is a noble goal and it’s worked well in the past, so why not keep it up?
First, we built highways that connected places that were never before directly connected. This was an enormous benefit and opened up to more markets. Towns that were once a 5 hour journey apart turned into an easy 1 hour trip. There is no question that this created an economic benefit. But, we’ve continued building and expanding this roadway system to much diminishing return.
A large portion of the new football stadium worth of funding is just another example of this misapplication of limited transportation dollars [you can read all about it here].
The Good: Bridge and Road Repairs and Reconstructions
Money needs to be set aside for maintenance and repairs. In an ideal world, we’d create an environment where we didn’t need special legislation and additional bonding to cover such costs. It’s an unsustainable system where needed works aren’t conducted because of pending statewide political disagreements. That being said, most maintenance projects appear to be commonsense and I’m not going to comment on them.
The problematic proposals are the existing infrastructure “add-on” projects. Many of which are expensive additions to rural highways that have a low, or a zero-sum, return on investment (at best).
The Bad: Enhanced Frontage Roads
The northern Minnesota town of Detroit Lakes (pop. 8,800) has a traffic jam about once a year. When everyone is leaving the 4th of July fireworks things can get backed up. Otherwise, of all the problems facing this rural community, traffic congestion is at the bottom of the list.
At the edge of town, between the rarely used municipal airport and the Perkins, the State is reconstructing a frontage road [Project Description]. Nothing shows our misunderstanding of transportation investment more than a frontage road.
Frontage roads are a symptom of ignoring how land use connects with transportation. We’ve pushed development to the highways, and to make them work as a private economic model, we’ve needed to add access points. These access points slow down traffic and cause accidents. It’s the classic stroad equation.
And, Detroit Lakes isn’t the only frontage road in need of repair. There are 10 new frontage road projects included in the $1.1 billion appropriations. The question we should ask before reconstructing any frontage road is: why after approximately 50 years is all we have to show for our original investment this?
This is it. There is a Wal-Mart, Subway, Taco Johns (!), KFC, strip mall, car wash, two drive-through banks, a K-mart and a handful of empty lots. No joke. There have been countless millions of dollars dropped in constructing and supporting this infrastructure and what you see above is all we have to show for it.
The Ugly: The Inappropriate Bypasses
Rice (pop. 1,200) has a problem. There’s an unsafe signalized highway interchange. It’s menacing. The proposed solution is construction of new on and off ramps. At face value, this makes sense: it’ll add to highway safety and improve traffic flows.Yet, the only reason it’s needed is because we’ve decided to build our places in such a sprawling manner. Dangerous cross traffic is occurring because of this:
Again. This is expensive infrastructure to support a McDonald’s, gas station, and a half-built subdivision. The Rice project isn’t alone, there are dozens of newly funded projects that are similar.
One of the reasons we struggle to fund the existing system is because we have no way to capture value from what this creates. The vast majority of this above $11.3 million project benefits only the gas station, fast food restaurant and the 30 odd homes. The State is picking up the tab. So, why is it that their financial responsibility for the new intersection is nil?
This is a primary example of how not to build a transportation and land use system.
Going back to the Commissioner Zelle’s quote: we’re building a Vikings Stadium in a year? Yes. We are. I think the commissioner is unfortunately right. Both endeavors appears to be regrettably similar.