It's hard out there for a Commish

We need a world class transportation system. Today we are committed to a 1950's approach to transportation which we fund with 1990's wishful thinking. We won't get the economic results we want from our transportation investments unless we start asking a different set of questions. The toughest among them, and perhaps most critical, will be deciding what parts of our current system are no longer worth maintaining.

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I had an opportunity to meet Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle and he seems like a decent guy. Now that I have a face with the name, I find myself feeling sympathy for him quite often these days. Zelle has been given the unenviable (and impossible) task of explaining why everyone needs to pay more for a system that will continue to be in decline.

I do believe that the Minnesota Department of Transportation, as an organization, is beginning to come to grips with a new reality. In the distant rear view mirror are the glory days of this nation's highway departments; lots of federal dollars, miles of really fun, expansion projects and everything shiny and new. In the "objects may seem closer than they appear" portion of the mirror is some (desperation) federal stimulus projects and some other one-off mega expenditures, which in retrospect seem either delusional or, more generously, like a plan to let everyone down gently.

Out the front window is the hard truth that we have overbuilt and overpromised and, in doing so, raised expectations that the DOT can continue to be a sugar daddy for local governments, politicians and their pet projects. And on top of that, highway demand is slowing, causing panic among those who have thought through the financial impact of maintaining a bloated system with stagnating or even declining revenue.

Zelle seems not yet ready to deal with the overbuilt or even the overpromised, but is doing what he can to lower expectations.

"Every year, more and more of the funding that we have is dedicated to maintaining our roads -- replacing pavement, rebuilding bridges," said Zelle. "At the end of that 20 years, there's actually inadequate funding to even take care of the system we have."

Zelle was appointed commissioner at the end of last year after serving on Governor Mark Dayton's Transportation Finance Advisory Committee. That committee issued a report suggesting Minnesota would fall $21 billion short of what was needed over the next two decades just to maintain the current system. That's more than a billion a year, a 5.6% increase in the state's budget just for transportation, just to keep what we have.

And who really wants that? The public at large is certainly not keen with simply standing still. They want more lanes, more interchanges, more transit. To build what the Committee called an "economically competitive, world-class system" would cost $50 billion more than the revenue we have. That's $2.5 billion of additional revenue each year, almost a per year doubling of what was spent in total on transportation in the last biennium.

It's never going to happen.

This seems to be understood among the political class, which is why Commissioner Zelle and others are out slowly delivering the bad news. The committee's recommended funding sources -- which were rejected by the governor due to a lack of support -- did not even raise the revenue needed for the treading water standard, let alone the "world-class" standard. (Note that we have single party rule here in Minnesota so the governor's insight was not a reflection of partisan gridlock.)

Here's the rub: I want an economically competitive, world class system. Minnesota needs one. Every state needs one. Are we really going to be satisfied as a people with an approach that is simply slowing the decline?

To get a world class system, we have to ask a different question. Right now we are asking the funding question. Where is the money going to come from to continue doing everything we are doing essentially the way we are doing it now along with some other things that we'd really like? We need to switch that around and ask a different question.

Given the money we have, given the funds taxpayers are willing to pay, how do we design, build and maintain an economically competitive transportation system?

That's a much more relevant, and powerful, question than whether or not we can tap into a slush fund (sales tax) or create a new revenue stream to stick with the status quo. If we are to answer this new question honestly, however, it means culturally going someplace few are willing to go. We actually have to admit that we have overbuilt our current system.

Yes, that seems apocryphal in the current context. When we build a highway, it never goes away, does it? The only way we eliminate a highway is if we build a bigger highway right next to it. Other than that, the assumption built into our current approach is that we've never made a mistake in choosing to build a piece of transportation infrastructure. NEVER. Every lane is necessary. No shoulder too wide. No interchange was ever unjustified and simply built because a politician got the funding. We have no redundant bridges, no unnecessary signals, no accesses that could ever be closed. We can tweak our approach with better materials or fancier technology, but the fundamental assumptions are not up for debate.

Tactically, this makes us Napolean entering Russia. Or the Wehrmacht doing the same in World War II. We will never give up an inch of ground, no matter the cost. To even consider doing so is simply not American. The idea of a strategic retreat is out of the question, even as our systems fall apart around us. No public official could seriously discuss contracting the system.

I've written so many times about reforming state DOT's (and eliminating the Federal DOT) that there is little more to say. Just this year, I've outlined principles for a next Generation DOT, recommended criteria for prioritizing spending with a limited budget and described in detail how DOT's can save tons of money while improving the economic health of small towns. Today I do have one additional idea to add to the mix.

We need the transportation equivalent of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. For those of you too young to remember this, at the end of the Cold War, we knew we needed to cut back on the number of military bases we had but no politician could vote to close a base in their district. A commission was formed to recommend closures. Their decision -- which was based on a technical review -- was essentially final unless Congress acted to overturn it. This gave politicians who were losing a base an opportunity to rant against it but, ultimately, the hard decisions were made.

We need to do the same thing with transportation infrastructure. Let's have a commission that looks at the entire system, prioritizes transportation segments and comes up with a list of what we walk away from. If we did this along with adopting a new approach for transportation within cities (eliminate STROADs) that is distinct from our approach outside of cities (reduce accesses), we'd be making huge strides towards focusing on our priorities and being honest with ourselves about what we can actually do well.

We need a world class transportation system. Today we are committed to a 1950's approach to transportation which we fund with 1990's wishful thinking. We won't get the economic results we want from our transportation investments unless we start asking a different set of questions. The toughest among them, and perhaps most critical, will be deciding what parts of our current system are no longer worth maintaining.

It's hard out there today, largely because we made it so easy for ourselves for so many years. Let's start being honest with where we're at, get serious about a change in approach and start building a nation full of strong towns.


Welcome to all of you who are discovering Strong Towns this fall. In addition to the blog, podcast and TV channel here, join us on the Strong Towns Network for some additional discussion on this post and more.

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.