This is written in response to a piece that ran last week on Streets.MN.
Back in 2011, I coined the term “infrastructure cult,” not to be bombastic but to highlight a destructive mindset that has crept deep into the cultural narrative of America. The notion, fully captured by fellow Minnesotan Tom Friedman in his book That Used to Be Us, is simple: investments in infrastructure create growth, jobs and prosperity. Period. End of conversation.
At a forum for the Washington Post that I spoke at last October, Vice President Biden called this the “oldest story in history.” Pounding his fist on the podium, he remarked, “Build, build, build, build, build….that’s the story.” The policy wonks in attendance largely nodded in concurrence. If we want a successful America, invest in infrastructure. It’s obvious.
This kind of simplistic analysis is comforting to those like Move MN – a coalition largely consisting of contractors, engineering firms, unions, local governments and professional lobbying organizations – who benefit from the one-dimensional conversation. Do you want more jobs or less? More mobility or less? More growth or less?
Do you want a dystopian race to the bottom or a political compromise that gets us all a little bit more of what each of us wants?
I reject all of these false choices. They are a construct of the current political debate, shaped by the propaganda from organizations like Move MN. They are not a serious examination of our complex and intertwined transportation, land use, economic and social challenges, struggles that go way beyond how much money we are going to spend on transportation. The Move MN proposal may be good politics, but it is bad policy. Enacting it will lead to a weaker Minnesota.
There are many reasons to oppose the Move MN proposal. I will highlight the three most important.
1. Our auto-based development pattern weakens our cities.
Many Minnesotans are waking up to the notion that our experiment with building cities around the automobile has been a financial failure. The early illusion of wealth associated with this style of development is now being overwhelmed by the long term costs, a huge percentage of which fall to local governments unprepared for them. While we’ve found creative ways to finance new growth, spreading a population out across a vast landscape is a prohibitively expensive undertaking to sustain.
The Move MN proposal completely ignores these critical problems and, in fact, associates success with the short term illusion of wealth. Earlier this year, Margaret Donahue, Executive Director of the Transportation Alliance, the group spearheading the Move MN coalition, identified the Brainerd bypass that runs through Baxter as a major success story.
You look at [Highway] 371 through Baxter as a classic case. It used to be a sleepy little town and now there's just business after business after business.
Those businesses are, of course, the typical collection of corporate chains that our transportation investments subsidize. Priced out of this market is the entire local ecosystem of businesses that strong cities are built upon. It’s a system designed to make the wealthy wealthier and, as a byproduct, traps places in perpetual decline. Persistent disparities in wealth and income are a direct byproduct of the development pattern our transportation investments have created.
This system encourages cities to chase the quick dollar that comes from state and federal transportation spending. Our local bureaucracies are set up to do this, to look up the government food chain and react to the programs and incentives that trickle down. In this, local governments completely ignore the pennies, nickels and dimes that they could pick up by making small, incremental investments in their own neighborhoods. So much of our latent potential is being sidelined. The Move MN proposal would ensure it stays that way.
Note that the market is trying to correct this. Despite all the subsidies pushing the other way, there is a net migration out of the suburbs and into cities. Why would we commit to spend billions of dollars over the next decade propping up a 1950’s model of development at a time the state is shifting so dramatically in a different direction?
2. Without good feedback, our transportation funding problems will only grow.
In the 1950’s, we instituted a gas tax as a way to build the interstate system. That effort was completed decades ago, yet the system continues to grow far beyond what such a blunt tax could imaginably support. Again, this is not a problem of funding but an inherent flaw with the gas tax itself.
The major problem with the gas tax is that it is opaque (hidden from the user) and largely disconnected from demand. There is no feedback mechanism between the user of the system and the provider of the service, a condition that has (frustratingly) allowed Minnesotans to demand lots of transportation spending while resisting the corresponding increases in taxes to make that possible. The Move MN proposal would magnify this dysfunctional side effect by instituting a tax that is even more opaque and disconnected from demand than the gas tax.
Case in point, in my hometown of Brainerd – where there is no congestion – people believe there is horrible congestion. Without any feedback mechanism that discerns the true need, we will continue to fight that non-existent congestion in the same way we have been: with millions of dollars of state and federal transportation money. We’ll pursue our share of the pot and we’ll demand our chance to experience jobs, growth and prosperity. So will everyone else.
Our primary transportation objective can no longer be expansion of the system. Instead, we need to focus on making better use of the investments we have already made. That means a more nuanced funding approach that correlates supply and demand while acknowledging the subtle land use implications of transportation investments.
The Move MN proposal makes our feedback problem worse and only guarantees a more painful funding gap in the future. Again, their proposal is good politics, but it is really bad policy.
3. We need aggressive investments in transit, biking and walking.
I have consistently argued that the highest returning investment a community can make is to improve the ability of people to walk and bike. I’m not talking about return on investment in the abstract way it has been portrayed on Streets.MN – “fewer cars on the road, big health cost savings, and air and carbon pollution reductions” – I’m talking about hard cash. Cities that make incremental investments to improve the ability of their residents to bike and walk will get higher returns than any other type of transportation investment.
Create opportunities for a family to go down to one car, you’ve completely changed their economic situation. Bring a customer to a business without that enterprise needing to subsidize a parking space or invest in a massive digital sign to lure drivers off the road and you’ve opened up opportunities for business startups and expansion. These are the slow and steady ways cities build wealth throughout their communities.
The Move MN proposal would throw a paltry sum at biking and walking infrastructure. This is being touted as a necessary compromise by those advocates who mistake Minnesota’s lack of support for biking and walking investments as a simple shortage of resources. The truth is that cities have all the resources they need to make fantastic biking and walking investments, but in a system awash with money, one that prioritizes automobile investments, they have little urgent reason to question the subsidies of the auto-oriented economic model.
This is a cultural problem, not a funding problem. Just this week we have another story from St. Paul of small business owners opposing bike lanes because it will impact automobile parking. This is lunacy, but adopt the Move MN approach to shovel an additional $10+ billion at auto-based infrastructure and we’ll postpone the necessary, complex and difficult conversations every community needs to have about their own financial health.
I don’t want $50 million in bike investments over the next decade. I want $1 billion in bike investments. The future of our cities, as well as our economy, depends on it. That kind of transformation won’t come about by trying to overwhelm opposition to bike infrastructure with the top/down funding equivalent of a pea shooter. It will only happen with a bottom/up, cultural shift towards a new understanding within our cities on how we create jobs, growth and prosperity. That shift is well underway; the Move MN proposal, if enacted, will greatly empower the forces resisting that change.
When it comes to transit in the Twin Cities metropolitan region, the MoveMN proposal would have us commit to the Metrodome of transit systems at just the time when other cities around the country are waking up to the transportation equivalent of Camden Yards, a switch from pandering to commuters with low-returning park and rides to investments that integrate within existing urban neighborhoods and serve emerging economic ecosystems. Building out the Twin Cities transit system as currently envisioned is not a feature of the MoveMN proposal; it is a fatal flaw.
In Greater Minnesota, we need to acknowledge that there will never be enough money to dial-a-ride our way to prosperity. The Move MN proposal of $32 million for rural transit to ensure “everyone has reliable transit access” has a very generous definition of “reliable”. A clumsy, expensive and intermittent taxi service to transport people to and from the regional big box stores does not alleviate rural poverty; it reinforces it.
We need a comprehensive statewide transit approach that focuses on building community wealth and prosperity by connecting productive places, not simply being a clumsy appendage to the automobile networks we’ve created.
What do I support?
Let me be clear: I support additional spending on transportation. In fact, more spending is essential if we are to maintain the critical parts of the systems we've already built. Last fall I released a Kindle short detailing my approach. I named it after Governor Dayton’s stated objective: A World Class Transportation System. For a state that prides itself on being better than average, it is really sad how far from that aspiration the current proposals at the capitol are. Are we really prepared to lock ourselves into this approach for the next decade?
The world class transportation system I envision focuses on maturing our cities. I would work almost entirely on making better use of the investments we’ve already made, most of which are vastly underutilized. That’s not a simple transportation funding issue; it is thousands of messy and difficult local land use issues. How much statewide transportation funding are we going to throw at fixing bad local land use and economic development policies?
I would rely more on local transportation funding and funding mechanisms that provide nuanced feedback so we can truly determine supply and demand. I would free transit investments from the auto-funding paradigm and allow them to be the high-returning, value-creating projects they naturally are.
None of this will happen in the last few days of the legislative session, so the immediate question is: are we better off with no bill than with one of the current proposals? I believe we are.
The DFL proposal is the Move MN proposal. It would commit us to a decade of destructive investments in perpetuation of a 1950’s economic model. It is inertia personified with a spoon full of bling to help bind the coalition. Minnesota is more thoughtful than this.
The Republican proposal is the perfect caricature of the American development pattern: the government building new stuff for people wealthy enough to participate using rainy day funds, debt and by cutting most everything else. This is not a serious way to govern.
We will be better off with no bill or with a short term compromise that commits us to as little expansion of the current approach as possible. Don’t let your desperation for change make you lose site of the long term trends, almost all of which are pushing for something far more transformative than the Move MN proposal.