Monday, April 29, 2013

Northern Lights Express

Starting in the spring of 1978, Amtrak provided passenger rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities.  The 3.5 hour trip provided an alternative transit mode for those conducting business or leisure trips between the two metropolitan areas.  However, due to low ridership and federal subsidy cuts, Amtrak stopped operations for good in April of 1985.  Since then, transit advocates have pushed for a renewal in passenger rail service along the 155-mile corridor.

The Northern Lights Express
In 2007, the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance was created in order to unify regional rail authority efforts for restoring rail service between the two metros.  Later that year, the Alliance funded a comprehensive feasibility study that compared speed options for rail service between the cities of Duluth and Minneapolis.  The report found that providing a service of 8 round trips per day, with top speeds reaching 110 mph, would create an operation surplus for the line.  This study provided the foundational justification for what the Alliance would later name the Northern Lights Express (NLX).

To date, the NLX Project can be summarized by the following:
  • 155-mile route between Minneapolis and Duluth 
  • Speeds of up to 110 miles per hour
  • Duration of complete trip would be 2 hours and 17 mins.  
    • 13 mins less than average vehicle travel time via the I-35 Corridor
  • Proposed stations include:
    • Minneapolis
    • Coon Rapids
    • Cambridge
    • Hinckley
    • Superior 
    • Duluth
  • Projected cost:  $350 million to $1 billion
  • Possible operating subsidy of $37-$83 per passenger
  • The Alliance suggests that there are numerous benefits associated with the NLX project.  
  • Ridership projections:
    • 938,000 annually
    • 2,569 per day
  • Total federal, state & local financial contributions exceed $13 million 

Funding Concerns
Although the federal government has provided planning grants, it has yet to finalize or approve its share  for NLX's construction or operating costs.  Typically the federal government covers up to 80% of passenger rail project construction costs.  However, the nation's most recent transportation bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), failed to provide any high speed rail funding through the 2014 fiscal year.  Thus, the federal governments contribution to the NLX project won't be determined until another federal transportation bill is passed in 2014.

Rising project costs and the unknowns regarding the federal government's contribution to the project have  proven troublesome for NLX stakeholders.  Citing concerns about the possibility of being responsible for providing construction funding and/or operating subisidies for the NLX project, the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority withdrew from the Minneapolis-Duluth Passenger Rail Alliance on June 12, 2012.  Although this reversal of support was surprising, the Alliance maintains that the project will continue to move forward.

Recent Developments
The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in consultation with the Federal Rail Authority (FRA), recently completed its Tier 1 Environmental Assessment (EA) for the NLX project.  Thankfully for NLX advocates, the EA determined that there weren't any significant environmental barriers that would stymie the project's development.  NLX's next hurdle is to complete the preliminary engineering (PE) for specific corridor improvements.  This process is anticipated to be complete by 2016 and should provide stakeholders with an updated project cost estimation. As the PE efforts continue through the support of existing federal and state allocations, many questions remain for NLX critics.

Two questions to consider:

  • Would you take the NLX to Duluth?  If so, how much would you be willing to pay?
  • If the federal government fails to provide funding for the project, would you be willing to pay for the NLX through an increase in county or state taxes?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Technology and Its Effect on the Future of Financing Roads in Florida

As a Floridian, I am used to paying for toll roads. It wasn't until I moved to Minnesota that I realized not every state uses tolls.

Now, Florida is on the verge of facing tough decisions on how to finance new road construction and road repair and maintenance.

Due to greener cars and better technology, cars are now getting much better gas mileage than they did decades ago. For example, hybrid and electric cars use far less gasoline than traditional economy cars that are gas guzzlers. However, better gas mileage also means less revenue from gas taxes, and thus, fewer dollars for new road construction and road maintenance. Although gas prices have been increasing over the years, this hasn't necessarily increased state revenue since the gas tax is on per gallon of gasoline purchased, not on the purchase price, as shown through information collected by the Department of Revenue. Despite the increase in taxes, a decrease in fuel consumption, illustrated by the two graphs below from the Florida Transportation Commission, Florida is bringing in less revenues.
Over the last 20 years, officials have shied away from increasing the gas tax, even though the cost of road repairs have been increasing. Therefore, Florida, like many other states, have a few options to address this diminishing revenue:

1. Increase gas taxes
Florida Transportation Secretary has said gas taxes are unsustainable. State officials say that gas tax revenue simply won't be enough. Furthermore, if gas taxes are increased, this is seen as more of a regressive tax. The wealthier are the ones able to afford the more fuel-efficient cars. As a result, much of the gas tax burden would fall on the poorer who are driving gas guzzlers because they can't afford $30,000 hybrids.

2. Increase toll roads
Florida is considering using tolls to fund roads connecting key economic regions, for example, from Tampa to Jacksonville. One argument against the use of toll roads is that it might be a huge burden on the poor. Some argue that tolls could cost a minimum of $3 a day. That could be a lot to a minimum wage worker. Is this fair? The following graph is from the Florida Turnpike showing the historical and projected revenues from the system.

3. Use a GPS system to charge based on mileage driven
Another option officials are considering is to charge drivers based on the miles they drive. The state would track the vehicle movement by GPS or a device installed in cars. This is a huge controversy due to privacy issues. Essentially, the government would be able to track where someone is going and when.

Florida has to grapple with what is a fair way to raise revenues, and also what is politically feasible to implement.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Financing Rural Roads

2.9 million miles are owned by local governments. (Kuennen, 2010)
1.5 million miles are unpaved. (LTAP, 2006)
In 2009 Michigan gravelized 35 miles of paved roads (MnDOT, 2010).

In recent years, local governments have faced budgetary shortfalls that have impacted their ability to maintain all roads in their district.  Many roads have fallen into disrepair as agencies are forced to prioritize road projects based on available funding.  Novel funding sources have been developed through various taxes, fees, and special assessments.  When these funding sources are insufficient, some local governments have reverted to gravelization, returning paved roads to gravel, due to the potential cost savings.

A heavy truck tears up a gravel road in
Brown County, S.D.
Rural roads have different issues compared to their urban counterparts.  Changes in the farm industry have put stress on current road infrastructure.   Increased productivity has required larger machinery to harvest and transport crops, which have sent rural roads into disrepair faster than anticipated (Smadi et. al, 1999).   Rural roads have safety issues.  In 2007, 23% of the U.S. population was rural but 57% of all traffic fatalities occurred on rural roads (Kuennen, 2010).   Rural roads have low vehicle traffic, which makes justifications for large capital improvement projects difficult to articulate.

How do local governments continue to provide value when funding falls short? In A Quiet Revolution in Transportation Finance: The Rise of Local Option Transportation Taxes the authors examine local option fuel taxes (not currently permitted in Minnesota) as one method.  The fuel tax is not a sustainable source because it is not indexed to inflation and increasing fuel efficiency has decreased fuel consumption.  Another idea is a wheel tax (Hough et. al.), where a tax is assessed per wheel.  This has been used extensively in South Dakota.  Sales taxes are authorized in thirty-three states (Minnesota included), but many states require earmarks, thereby limiting local governments ability to determine the appropriate allocation (Goldman and Wachs, 2003).  Rural improvement districts, a rural form of special assessment districts, have been used in Montana and North Dakota.  North Dakota’s Cass county can create special assessment districts for projects with costs in excess of $12,000 (Hough et al, 1999). 

Chip seal is a layer of hot asphalt topped with aggregate
Instead of focusing on raising revenue, some local governments have focused on decreasing costs.    Chemical additives like soil stabilizers and chip seal provide cheaper alternatives to reduce maintenance.  Service reductions, such as lowering maintenance frequency (blading a gravel road every other month rather than every month for example), reduce the width of roads, declare roads minimum maintenance or even close roads.  Additionally there are management strategies like streamlining the work force and sharing or contracting engineering services to lower salary and fringe benefits for local agencies (Hough, 1999).

When no more management and maintenance strategies can be implemented, a last ditch effort to maintain roadways is gravelizing.  Gravel roads represent a cost savings for most local governments.   Local agencies reported different cost estimates of roads (MnDOT, 2010).  Hancock County, Indiana estimates the cost for gravels roads to be $22,000 per mile over five years while paved costs will exceed $25,000 in that same period.  Stustman County, North Dakota estimated their “cost per mile per year to rehabilitate a paved road” is $31,293.75 compared to $1,683.70  “per mile per year of converting a paved road to gravel and then maintaining that road” (MnDOT, 2010).  Additional factors that may change costs are availability of gravel and maintenance costs.  Having no local source of gravel requires gravel to be trucked in from neighboring counties and states is expensive and causes additional wear and tear on the roads.  

Gravelizing is not a popular choice. The Highway Superintendent, Jan Weismantal, of Brown County, South Dakota has a current budget of $7 million and 650 paved miles.  She estimates that her budget allows for proper maintenance of 150 miles of paved roads. However, because of negative public reaction, “no large sections are being milled up and immediately returned to gravel” (Landers, 2011).  Other studies have estimated that 0.3 minutes per mile is the increased travel time for gravel roads due to slower posted speeds.

While much of the public decries the devolution of roads to gravel, expanded gravel roads are an inevitable part of our future road network.  Local governments must make extremely difficult decisions in the future.  There are budget issues that will require creativity to bridge the gaps; they will have to be careful to balance the needs and desires of the community with the budget.  They should take care to not focus solely on costs but in increasing efficiency to stretch the current budget. 

Goldman, Todd and Wachs, Martin. (2003). A Quiet Revolution in Transportation Finance: The Rise of Local Option Transportation Taxes. Transportation Quarterly, 57(1), 19-23. Retrieved from

Hough, J., Smadi, A., Bitzan, J. (1999). Innovative Financing Methods for Local Roads in the Midwest and Mountian-Plains States. Transportation Research Board, 1652, 7-12. Retrieved from

Kuennen, Tom. (March, 2010). At A Crossroads: The fate of our secondary roads may be in the balance. Better Roads 80 (3), 12-21. Retrieved from

Landers, Kirk. (May, 2011). Roads to Rubble: De-Paving a Half-Century of Progress.  Hot Mix Asphalt Technology, 16(3), 36-39.  Retrieved from

Minnesota Department of Transportation. (May, 2010). Decision Tree for Unpaving Roads. Retrieved from

Minnesota Local Technical Assistance Program. (October, 2006). To Pave or not to Pave: Making informed decisions on when to upgrade a gravel road.  Retrieved from  

Smade, A., Hough, J., Schulz, L., & Birst, S. (1999). North Dakota Gravel Road Management: Alternative Strategies. Transportation Research Board, 1652. 16-23.  Retrieved form

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Standardized Testing in Public Schools

The amount of standardized testing undergone by children in public schools has increased dramatically in the past several decades due to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other legislation, and a general cultural shift toward child measurement based on standardized testing. Proponents of the increased use of standardized testing to measure student progress and performance argue that consistent testing helps hold education systems accountable for student performance, and helps identify areas where students are struggling and where education entities need to focus attention. Opponents argue that testing is expensive, may be culturally biased, and does not do an adequate job of measuring true ability and performance.
Graph Source: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems, 
Brown Center on Education Policy, p.12

Despite any reservations, standardized testing has become an integral part of our school system. A 2012 analysis done by the Matthew Chingos at the Brown Center on Education Policy estimated that states collectively spend a total of $1.7 billion annually on student assessments. This amounts to $27 per student. Chingos also found considerable variation between states in their spending on student assessments. While the size of the differences in spending may be misleading at first glance because states differ in the percent of total education spending paid for by local governments, there are several important findings on differences in state spending on education assessment from Chingos’ analysis.

On average, larger states spent less per pupil than states with smaller numbers of students. Of the 45 states included in Chingos’ analysis, New York spent $7 per student on standardized testing, while Vermont and the Dakotas ranked much higher on the list. Two likely explanations for these differences are that fixed costs of test development are spread across more students in larger areas, and that larger school systems have more bargaining power when negotiating contracts with the 6 major testing companies that hold almost 90% of the market share in test development, with Pearson holding the largest share at 39%.
The current use of standardized testing varies considerably among states.  In Texas, which currently uses standardized tests in its high school graduation requirements, legislators are considering changes in spending on standardized testing in Texas.

The United States is one of the few countries that does not have national education curriculum standards, and states are able to set their own education standards and programs (provided they comply with certain federal regulations such as NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The Common Core State Standards Initiative aims to align curriculum across states for students in K-12. To date, 45 states and D.C. have joined, and math and English language standards were released in 2010. Participation in the Common Core is voluntary, but remains controversial; although states are not explicitly required to join, states are required to join as a condition of receiving a waiver from NCLB.
In addition to forming common learning standards across participating states, the Common Core has become a basis for forming standardized assessments. The Department of Education has given $360 million in funding to two consortia of states to develop assessments to be implemented in the 2014-15 school year based on the Common Core standards. In theory, the collaboration among states should reduce per-pupil costs for the tests due to the aforementioned bargaining power and spreading of fixed development costs throughout the member states. Chingos estimated that participating states, and especially smaller states, could realize considerable cost savings from the collaboration. He also recommended that larger states use their current market power to encourage test makers to give more detail on their pricing models to increase transparency and decrease costs.

The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education suggested that implementation of the Common Core would have only small, if any, impact on student achievement in the U.S. Tom Loveless, the report’s author, pointed out that changes in individual state standards typically do nothing to change of intra-state variation in student performance. A study by William Mathis with the University of Colorado found that while students from low SES households need an average of 20 to 40% more funding to bring disadvantaged students up to state educational standards, areas with concentrated poverty typically receive 20% less funding than areas with more affluent households.

Overall, standardized testing in public schools has the potential to be a good tool for teachers and policymakers to monitor student performance, but as Mathis points out, there are still major concerns with using them in high-stakes situations such as for evaluating school and teacher performance, and especially for individual level decisions such as for graduation requirements. Moving forward, states would be wise to carefully consider the intended uses of tests when making decisions based on them, and to have a clear and consistent plan for what to do with the information collected from them.

Untenable Choices: Full day kindergarten for all or pre-kindergarten for some?

In a positive step forward yesterday, the Minnesota House voted to pay for free all-day kindergarten statewide and to make early-childhood education programs more affordable.  It moves on to the Senate now, which has indicated support for similar legislation with some differences; the Senate plan calls for $50 million in preschool scholarships and $105 million for full day kindergarten whereas the House recommends spending $44 million on preschool and $130 million on full day K. 

It’s a start. 

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, Minnesota is one of twelve states that currently allow school districts to charge tuition to parents for the other half of the school day.  This is one of four arrangements happening in the United States—the other three; providing full day kindergarten for no additional cost, only allowing for half-day kindergarten, or no statutory requirement for kindergarten are the other three. 

Given those options nationwide, Minnesota’s new legislation would be closer to the head-of-the-pack.  The impact is summarized here:
-      Currently, about 75 percent of students have access to full day kindergarten, but about 10,000 families must pay for it. The bill will save those families $26 million.
-      Scholarships to low-income families so their children can attend preschool. (See chart below for additional info.)

You’ll note that the current funds proposed for early childhood, still don’t sufficiently provide for every child in Minnesota.  And—in the Senate version of the bill, funds are diverted from full-day K to early childhood scholarships (while still not meeting the needs for either). 

Not only is this an untenable choice for Minnesota families, its an untenable choice for all Minnesotans—and for every other state in our nation that’s failing to fully fund early childhood and kindergarten for all children. 

Why? Because we know that early investments in our students produce a higher rate of return, than just about any other social investment. In 2003, Rob Grunewald an economic analyst and Art Rolnick, the former research director at the Minneapolis Fed published a landmark paper estimating that dollars invested in high-quality preschool education for disadvantaged kids paid an inflation-adjusted 16 percent return. Other experts who reviewed the findings set it at 10 percent rather than 16. But the overall return is high, and clear: students who are ready to learn in kindergarten do better in school and beyond, become more productive workers, and are significantly less likely to burden the taxpayers with costs of crime and welfare. Or as Fredrick Douglass stated, “Easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

And, despite this new legislation putting us near the front of the pack nationally, we’re still trailing internationally.
According to the OECD Education at a Glance 2012, a study of its 34-member countries and several additional G20 countries:
-      Across the studied countries in 2010, 79 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool education. In the European Union, the percentage was 83.
-      In comparison, only 69 percent of U.S. 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool education, ranking the U.S. 28th among 38 nations studied.
-      The top 15 countries, including many of our economic competitors, all had enrollments exceeding 90 percent.
-      The typical preschool starting age for U.S. children is 4, compared with a starting age of 3 or younger in 21 other OECD countries.

The OECD data suggest that enrollment in early childhood education correlates with higher educational achievement later. Students who received preschool education performed better at age 15 on international tests of reading, mathematics and science (using the Program for International Student Assessment-PISA). In fact, the more preschool education a child had, the higher their 15-year-old score. Students with one additional year of preschool had scores almost 10 points higher.

While the U.S. spends considerably more per 4-year-old pupil than the OECD average — $8,396 compared with $6,670 — much of our expenditure comes from private sources. Only 55 percent of U.S. preschool students were enrolled in public programs, compared with 84 percent in public or publicly supported private settings in other countries.
Given all of this, not only should we be fully funding a full day of kindergarten, we should also be ensuring that every child has access to high-quality pre-K. There certainly shouldn’t be a trade-off between the two.  And if we’re talking about what’s fiscally responsible, if there is another investment that the state is making or could make that pays for itself and then some, I can’t think of a more responsible investment.

So if you’ve gotten this far, and this is making sense, contact your Senator today and get behind this legislation.

It may not be perfect, but it’s a start.

President Bush & President Obama's Education Initiatives

Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind:
Are these initiatives worth our time and effort?

President Bush and President Obama have both declared a need for better school systems.  For Bush, the solution is No Child Left Behind.  Obama’s solution is Race to the Top.  Both of these solutions leverage federal funding to help improve standards/assessments, data/accountability, effective teachers/principals, and ways of turning around low-performing schools.  

The core of these two policies differentiates the directionality of the leaders.  Race to the Top is a grant allocated to only a few states based on a point system.  No Child Left Behind is an act that federally mandates changes in school systems.

No Child Left Behind
In 2001, Bush’s school reform act was put in place.  No Child Left Behind utilizes Title I funding.  Title I grant funding is allocated for schools with socio-economically disadvantaged students.  No Child Left Behind was enacted as a mechanism to ensure standards are met to receive Title I funding. 

Failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), results in school systems flowing through a systemic process associated with school turnaround.  Years 2-4 focus on improvements of the system, year 5 corrective action, and year 6 restructuring of the school system.  States are mandated to follow up in order to continue receive funding from the federal government.  Figure 3, below, shows Georgia's funding stream based upon No Child Left Behind.

Race to the Top
Obama’s initiative builds off from Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.  Race to the Top was enacted in 2009.  The grant is dedicated to states that show innovative educational practices.  The grants were scored on a 500-point system broken into various factors.  Each of the states were graded and then given money based on their capacity.  Minnesota has been the grateful recipient of some of the Race to the Top funding.   The Minnesota application is available online, here.

Race to the Top is based in the belief is that “the best ideas come from leaders at the local level” as Arne Duncan stated.  Race to the Top is innovative in nature.  Once the innovation proves itself through evaluation, the practices are scaled to larger audiences.  Currently, Obama is utilizing No Child Left Behind to create greater reforms.  One example is granting more money for states that include teacher evaluations based upon performance

Does it work?
Yet, through all of these education reforms, student achievement has not seen drastic changes.  Many people are beginning to revolt against standardized testing and are opting out.  This Washington Post article elaborates the quantity and magnitude of those opposing both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top’s standardized tests.

Many politicians, professionals, parents, and students alike are aware of the educational problems facing our nation.  The challenge is knowing if we are able to fix the structure of education or if we will need a complete renewal?  Here is a RSA Animate for thought--

The United States needs to become a leading change agent  in education for the new generation of learner.  Hopefully, President Bush and Obama's education policies Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind are moving in this direction... only time will tell if these initiatives have been worth the time and effort of countless school leaders and politicians.