Minnesota’s legislative session begins tomorrow and, like many states throughout the union, front and center on the agenda is transportation spending. From this weekend’s edition of the Star Tribune:
"Anybody who travels around the state knows our highways are in worse condition, our traffic congestion is getting worse, public transit is far behind other parts of the country and world in terms of its adequacy and efficiency,” [Minnesota Governor Mark] Dayton said in an interview. “I can guarantee that if we don’t make it better, it’s going to continue to get worse.”
Making it “better” means, of course, spending more money. There is no talk of reform. There is nobody really asking how we got in such a difficult financial situation. The only question under consideration is the one I outlined in my latest book, A World Class Transportation System: How do we get more money to continue doing more of the same thing?
More is better.
The Star Tribune reported that, “about 1,200 of Minnesota’s more than 20,000 bridges are classified as structurally deficient.” They attributed Transportation for America later in naming the exact number: 1,191. The 2013 Transportation for America bridge report was an update of a 2011 report on the same topic. While the 2013 update didn’t include the cost of repairs, the 2011 report did.
T4A indicated in 2011 that the cost to repair Minnesota's structurally-deficient bridges was $500 million. That’s a lot of money, but these bridges also accommodate a combined 2.3 million crossings per day.
Contrast that with the new bridge over the St. Croix River that is currently under construction. At somewhere around $600 million, it will carry a projected 16,000 cars per day. You can use the project webcam to watch your money being spent.
Maintain 1,191 existing bridges: $500 million. Build one new bridge: $600 million. The former is a crisis while the latter a destiny.
This is just one specific example of a fact that was captured exquisitely in a graphic that went along with the Star Tribune story. As you look at this, keep in mind that the problem we are being told we have is insufficient money to maintain everything we have built. As our state’s version of a transportation advocacy organization, Move MN, has said, we are the “Land of 10 million potholes”. Well, here's how we prioritize maintenance.
Note that this new construction is not expensive new transit or pedestrian improvements; it's good old road spending. And also note that a large percentage of that $721 million from the federal government is also going to new construction. Yes, we can’t maintain all the stuff we’ve built – according to the Star Tribune, Minnesota has the “fifth-largest highway system in the nation” – yet we are building more and more and more.
Let me give you just one example out of a nearly infinite list. Here is the Highway 10 Rice interchange. Rice has a population of 1,320. They have a highway intersection east of town where they were able to land a pair of gas stations, one with a combination McDonalds/Subway. Last year Mn/DOT estimated that 3,400 cars per day approach the highway from the west, just 1,600 from the east. McDonalds obviously needs to be in the northbound side to get their traffic counts which, unfortunately, is the opposite side of the highway from the city. The new interchange will make that easier for all at a cost of only $11.3 million.
Incidentally, these improvements were funded out of the Safety and Mobility Interchange Program, a program designed to “relieve growing traffic congestion” and “promote traffic safety”. Inexplicably, construction of this new high-capacity interchange didn’t require Rice to abandon either of its other two dangerous highway accesses (see map). Those are future potential economic development opportunities where the state can look forward to subsidizing another international franchise corporation with a future interchange (once enough people have been killed trying to cross there).
This is our system: one big Ponzi scheme attempting to prop up a rolling development extravaganza of strip malls, big box stores, fast food and cheap housing. You want to spend more on this?
Sunday’s Star Tribune indicated that current funding levels put us $21.2 billion short” of what is needed “just to keep Minnesota’s current system functioning, never mind expanding it.” How about we just try that for a while? What would it actually mean to just to keep our current system functioning?
What would it mean to try and get more out of our current investments before we expanded the system?
It can’t happen, at least not easily, and here’s why: it would mean a change in our land use pattern. It would mean a change in tax codes. It would mean a change in our economic development approach. You see, to get more out of our current investments, we need a development pattern that can mature in place, one that doesn’t rely on an ever-expanding transportation system to create new fast food, big box and tract housing opportunities. And that’s a multi-dimensional conversation, one that can’t – or at least won’t – happen at the state or federal level.
The transportation funding conversation at those levels is happening in a silo. The Star Tribune perfectly summarized the simplicity of that dialog:
That coalition’s [Move MN] roster of local governments, labor unions, and construction and engineering firms backs new taxes to pay for transportation. But while advocates argue that declining infrastructure hobbles economic growth, many businesses are reluctant to back tax increases that would hit their balance sheets.
So who’s not represented in that silo?
You. Your community. Your small business owners trying to make a go of it on Main Street. The family trying to save money by biking or walking to work. The student wanting competent bus service near their school.
Oh, they’ll pander to you. They’ll promise you all kinds of things….fancy new trains (to park and rides), bike trails (in the ditch, but not safe streets)….but this system isn’t representing you at all. It’s on autopilot. It’s got a long line of Rice interchanges and St. Croix bridge projects just ready to go when you give them the money. Don’t do it.
I’m going to aggressively oppose any increase in transportation funding in Minnesota, any other state or at the federal level, until there is aggressive reform of this system. At this point, communal funds must be for maintenance only with any system expansion being paid by some form of user charge. #NoNewRoads
And if this means that states and the federal government, unable to resolve the complexities of successfully growing a centralized economy without the opiate of transportation spending, devolve funding to the local level for all but the critical systems of interstate travel, then that works too.
And as a final word, for those of you hoping to fund transit, pedestrian and cycling improvements out of increased state and federal dollars, I offer two observations. First, you are advocating for high-return investments in a financing system that does not currently value return-on-investment. You are going to finish way behind on every race, at least until we no longer have the funds to even run a race. Stop selling out for a drop in the bucket and start demanding high ROI spending.
Second, the cost of getting anything you want is going to be expansive funding to prop up the systems that hurt the viability of transit, biking and walking improvements. Every dollar you get is going to be bought with dozens of dollars for suburban commuters, their parking lots and drive throughs and their mindset continuing to oppose your efforts at every turn. You win more by defunding them than by eating their table scraps.