In the weeds of transportation reform

I've spent way too much time reading state statutes on transportation policy (don't ask why). I was prompted to put the following together, which are solely my thoughts and, admittedly, are more likely to be found in a spam folder than a committee hearing (although they shouldn't be).

The central problem with Minnesota’s transportation system is that we have the wrong underlying assumption to all of our transportation investments. Our current underlying assumption is:

We improve the lives of Minnesotans the more we increase their mobility (how far they can travel in a given amount of time).

This belief is understandable given the problems we were trying to solve when our current financing system was put in place. When we started building highways, we were connecting places that were remote and distant from each other. The act of making these connections completely transformed our economy. It opening up employment opportunities, allowed us to exploit previously inaccessible land and made it easier for farm products, timber and extracted minerals to get to market. The transformative impact of these investments can hardly be overstated.

The system as originally envisioned has now been built and what we have been experiencing for decades are the diminishing returns of this same approach. It is one thing for my drive from Brainerd to St. Paul to go from ten hours (1950’s) to six hours (1960’s), to four hours (1980’s) and now to two hours (2000’s). It is another thing for my morning commute into town to go from twelve minutes to ten. Both represent a massive financial undertaking for the state, but only the former is transformative.

Our focus on increasing mobility is no longer improving the lives of Minnesotans. To the contrary, we force enormous financial burdens onto individuals and families when we require people to own a car in order to function in society. When most of Minnesota’s cities and neighborhoods have no options available for an individual who chooses to live without a car – not only to find employment but simply to get food, clothing or medicine – then our transportation system is causing more problems than it can possibly solve.

We need a new underlying assumption to refocus our efforts for an auto-based transportation system that is fully mature. Here's that new assumption:

We improve the lives of Minnesotans the less we force them to drive.

Today, MnDOT lacks focus and that results in the old underlying assumption – increasing mobility is the path to prosperity – being the driving force. We increase mobility by building more, adding more capacity and constantly expanding our systems. We’ve run out of money trying to solve our problems this way. We need to think differently.

A new focus on providing alternatives – do not force people to have to drive to everything – is necessary to overcome the organizational inertia that currently exists.

Reform, in this sense, begins at the foundation.  State Statute 174.01 creates the Minnesota Department of Transportation and provides it with sixteen goals. An organization with sixteen priorities has no priorities. To provide the needed focus, these should be rewritten to say:

Subd. 2.Transportation goals.

The primary goals of the state transportation system are as follows:

(1) to optimize the state’s transportation investments to provide for economical and safe movement of goods and people throughout the state by rail, highway, and waterway;

(2) to provide for and prioritize funding of transportation investments that ensures that the state's transportation infrastructure is maintained in a state of good repair;

(3) to support local initiatives that reduce the overall reliance on state transportation funding; and

(4) to minimize fatalities and injuries for transportation users throughout the state.

In addition to these primary goals, the state transportation system should also seek to do the following:

(1) to provide reasonable travel options for intercity commuters;

(2) to increase alternatives for all persons and businesses and avoid placing undue burdens on any community;

(3) to provide transit alternatives between cities;

(4) to promote bicycling and walking as core transportation alternatives;

(5) to encourage tourism by providing appropriate transportation to Minnesota facilities designed to attract tourists and to enhance the appeal, through transportation investments, of tourist destinations across the state;

(6) to provide an air transportation system sufficient to allow all regions of the state the ability to participate in the global economy;

(7) to ensure that the planning and implementation of all modes of transportation are consistent with the environmental and energy goals of the state;

(8) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state's transportation sector;

(9) to accomplish these goals with minimal impact on the environment; and

(10) to promote accountability through management and reporting of system performance and financial productivity.

I realize that many of these secondary goals are of primary importance to a lot of people, but they are already subservient – whether we want them to be or not – to the primary goals of moving stuff, maintaining the system and improving safety. I add “reduce the overall reliance on state transportation funding” as a goal on par with the big three to emphasize the dramatic philosophical shift from increasing mobility to providing alternatives that needs to be made.