Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Political Feasibility of Adequately Funding Transportation in Minnesota or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Commute

There are many measures to judge our system of highways, transit, and transportation options.
However, there are two very noticeable measures that we tend to monitor: congestion and commute times. And in Minnesota both are increasing.Congestion first: A recent study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) reported that freeways in the Twin Cities were 14% more congested in 2007 than the previous year.

Now commute times: Another recent study from MnDOT revealed that commute times in Minnesota are on the rise.
During the 1990s, commute durations in Minnesota increased by about 2 1/2 minutes on average (this is a lot!). Furthermore, this trend is expected to continue through the 2000s.

While some the increases in congestion and commute times can be attributed to the collapse of the 35W Interstate Bridge in August, the same report warned that
“without additions to freeway capacity, we can expect the future to continue the long-term trend of growth in congestion. MnDOT has limited resources to slow projected increases in congestion.”
By 2030, MNDOT projects that 41.5% of the Twin Cities freeway system will be congested.

In other words, Minnesota is not adequately funding its transportation system.
If we fail to increase funding to provide additional capacity, almost half of our metropolitan freeways will turn into parking lots by 2030.

Assuming our current transportation modal choice, between 2008 and 2030, MnDOT estimates that the
“additional funding needed to maintain our transportation system in good condition and to meet some of the growing demand on the system is near $1.8 billion per year.”

This growing problem is not lost on Minnesotans. After the weather, traffic congestion is a favorite topic of conversation.
So if it stands as a clear problem, why haven’t we addressed it? Why does our transportation system go underfunded?

One piece of the problem is politics.
While taxpayers demand better more efficient transportation, the political feasibility of providing adequate funding remains low for a number of reasons.

First, our current system of funding transportation has few options for increasing current revenue sources:

Before 2008, Minnesota’s fuel tax has not increased since 1988 – inflation has eroded purchasing power
  • The motor vehicle sales tax revenue simply replaced tab fee and property tax revenue
  • Transit service continues to decrease and fares continue to increase
  • Cost for transportation construction projects continues to increase at rates greater than inflation
In other words, additional funding for transportation would most likely have to come from new revenue sources or increased taxes.

Second, Minnesota’s elected officials face an intense political agenda against raising taxes.
In 2008, after six Republican legislators in the House helped override the Governor’s veto of gas tax increase, these select few lost leadership positions, some lost party endorsements, and others lost their seats.

Lastly, an increase in funding to transportation remains a highly visible and contentious issue among Minnesota voters.
While Minnesotans did vote and pass a constitutional amendment to dedicate all motor vehicle sales tax revenue to transportation, any increases in funding simply replaced existing funding from tab fees and property tax revenues. Furthermore, the recent increase in state’s fuel tax came only after the tragic collapse of the 35W Interstate Bridge.

Without adding new sources of income or increasing existing sources, Minnesota stands to face dramatic increases in congestion and commute times over the next 20 years.
Can Minnesota policy makers and voters come together to solve this issue?

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