Minnesota’s future: Maintain our roads while expanding transit


In 2008, the average American drove the same distance as in 1998, recording the largest annualized drops in total vehicle miles traveled (90 billion) and per capita VMT (388 miles) since World War II. Minnesotans put in 21 million fewer miles behind the wheel in February 2009 than in February 2008, reaching a low point not seen in at least five years.

This historic drop in driving began before fuel prices spiked and has persisted despite their sharp fall since early July 2008. Part of the reason is rising unemployment and reduced shopping and leisure travel in the current recession. But some experts predict the trend won’t reverse when the economy improves.

“People are changing their driving habits,” said Jack Finn, senior vice president of HNTB, a Kansas City consulting firm. “They’re taking fewer trips, there’s less driving, more carpooling and part of that lifestyle change will continue.”

Airline travel also has declined sharply, with 28 million fewer passengers on U.S. carriers in 2008 than in 2007, a 3.7 percent drop.

Americans are still on the move, just via different transportation modes. Bus and rail transit and passenger trains are steadily gaining riders.

Nationwide, transit ridership increased 4 percent in 2008, totaling 10.7 billion trips, the most in 52 years. Transit gains in Minnesota for the year were even greater: 14.2 percent in Anoka County, 6.8 percent for the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority and 6.3 percent for Metro Transit. Patronage on Minnesota’s only light rail line, the Hiawatha, was up 12.3 percent.

Minnesota’s only intercity passenger train, Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, registered a 12.2 percent increase in boardings and alightings in the state from federal Fiscal 2007 to Fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30. Nationally, Amtrak carried a record 28.7 million passengers in Fiscal 2008, posting its sixth straight year of ridership and revenue growth. Ridership increased 11 percent and fare revenue by 14 percent, to a record $1.7 billion.

Even intercity bus travel increased 9.8 percent in 2008, its highest growth rate in 40 years. This reduced national fuel consumption by an estimated 3.48 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel and carbon dioxide emissions by 36,000 tons.

The Metropolitan Council’s 2030 transportation policy plan for the Twin Cities, adopted in January, notes these trends and sets goals that comport with them: expanded bus and rail transit and a “proposition that the region will not invest in [highway] projects with the goal of eliminating congestion.” Instead, it adds, “the primary highway investments will strive to preserve the system.”

This change from a focus on highway expansion is long overdue. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the average state highway principal arterial lost 5.6 years of its remaining service life over the six years from 2001 to 2007 while non-principal routes lost a full six years. In other words, the state was simply wearing out roads built over the previous decades in order to maximize funds for more new construction – a recipe for costly infrastructure failure.

Poorly maintained roads also have imposed a hidden tax on Minnesota motorists of $690 million a year in extra vehicle repair and operating costs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That’s $227 per driver, and more in total than the annual revenue from the transportation bill enacted in February 2008 over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto.

The Met Council’s plan explains the fiscal impossibility of continued highway expansion: “Adding enough highway capacity to meet unlimited demand over the next 25 years would cost some $40 billion, an amount that, if funded by the state gas tax alone, would add more than $2 a gallon to the cost of fuel.”

Recovery funding from Washington, however, is giving Minnesota a rare opportunity to catch up on years of deferred highway maintenance. Overlay and reconstruction projects, with their short planning timelines and no need for long processes of right-of-way acquisition and environmental study, are well-suited for quickly putting cash in workers’ and suppliers’ hands – a vital strategy to turn the economy around.

For the longer haul, however, Minnesota should follow changes in the transportation market.

That means, in addition to planned completions of the Northstar commuter rail line and the Central Corridor light rail in the next five years, accelerating development of rail or busway projects along the Southwest and Bottineau Boulevard corridors.

It means making commitments to fast passenger train service from the Twin Cities to Duluth and Chicago – projects on which commuter rail initiatives for Anoka and Dakota counties could piggyback at relatively low costs. It also means more buses, bus routes and park-and-ride lots to meet the Met Council’s goal of doubling 2003 transit ridership by 2030, to 147 million trips. Even before the latest surge in transit patronage, the council said “the numbers are on track” to achieve that.

One sign that Minnesota leaders are heeding their constituents’ changing choices of ways to get around is in the newly enacted 2009 state transportation finance bill. It trims highway right-of-way acquisition and construction money to plug a projected $70 million two-year deficit for statewide transit operations. This will avert transit service cuts and new fare increases at a time when more and more Minnesotans are riding instead of driving. And it demonstrates to federal funders that our state has the will and the means to achieve the bus and rail expansions the public wants.

Those transit projects, by the way, generate more than double the jobs created by equal investments in highways, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

Some conservatives will squawk at growing subsidies for bus and light rail riders, but these are the same folks who pretend that driving doesn’t get its own massive government assistance while ringing up huge external costs in collisions and injuries, pollution, military operations to secure foreign oil supplies and so-called “free” parking.

What’s real is that, going back to the Erie Canal and the railroads, nearly all modes of transportation in the United States have enjoyed government largesse, for the very real reason that our prosperity depends on them.

While it’s true that driving now accounts for nearly 100 times more U.S. trips than transit, that’s partly a function what government has and hasn’t supplied. A road or street runs in front of practically every home and business in America. Access to transit is spotty even in cities, often nonexistent in suburbs and rural areas.

Minnesotans and the rest of the nation are voting with their feet for a more balanced transportation system. It’s nice to see that our state leaders are paying attention.

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