The 2008 legislative session that ended early Monday was the best for Minnesota’s vital transportation system in at least 20 years, highlighted by $6.6 billion in new road, bridge and transit revenues over 10 years and a last-minute agreement to build the Central Corridor light-rail line.
Opinion: Session 2008: A Great Start for Transportation
Both of these huge boons for our state’s economic prospects had to overcome shortsighted vetoes by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but they will be a proud legacy for the bipartisan legislators who made them a reality.
That said, there were also plenty of missed opportunities to adopt smart policies that would save lives and money on our highways, fight global warming and preserve the hard-won road and bridge funding advances that inflation will inexorably erode.
Here’s the debit side of the ledger:
* Cost-of-living increases were stripped out of the first boost in state gasoline taxes in 20 years. This tax, dedicated solely to roads and bridges, is the only one at the state level that doesn’t automatically rise with inflation – even if the price of gas itself far exceeds general inflation rates. That means that the buying power of Minnesota’s 20-cents-a-gallon levy was cut nearly in half since 1988 as freeways clogged with traffic and major bridges bent and collapsed. And even as the tax rises to 28.5 cents a gallon over the next four years, it still won’t restore the inflation losses. Wisconsin and several other states adjust their gas taxes annually for inflation, which helps keep their roads and bridges up to date without divisive periodic funding battles.
* A promising set of highway safety initiatives first gained momentum, then skidded into the ditch of some Minnesotans’ aversion to reasonable regulation in their cars on public roads. A tougher mandatory seatbelt law, projected to save hundreds of lives and millions of dollars each year, was shot down by the House. Pawlenty nixed new child-restraint rules and he is expected to veto restrictions on novice teenage drivers that have saved lives in 46 other states.
* A Senate committee rejected California-style rules on auto emissions adopted by a dozen states that would reduce greenhouse gases linked to global warming. It had cleared several House panels, but ran into powerful opposition from the auto industry.
* As part of the budget-balancing deal, $1.25 million was cut from incentives for gas stations to install E-85 pumps. For former lieutenant governor hopeful Judi Dutcher and others who may not know, that’s 85-percent ethanol motor fuel that produces 83 percent less tailpipe greenhouse emissions per gallon than Minnesota’s standard 10-percent ethanol blend.
On the plus side, the supplemental bonding bill that will make a $70 million state down payment toward $450 million in federal funds for the long-dreamed-of transit link between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns included a surprise transportation bonus: $2 million to replace the old Cedar Avenue bridge over the Minnesota River for use by bicycle commuters, inline skaters and other leg-powered travelers (a modern six-lane span for motor vehicles opened in 1979).
Another plus: Legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill to require that at least one of the top executives of the Minnesota Department of Transportation be a licensed professional engineer. Under former Commissioner Carol Molnau, there was no engineer in the department’s top echelon. Now there are two: Tom Sorel, appointed to replace Molnau after she was ousted by the Senate in February, and Khani Sahebjam, named deputy commissioner and chief MnDOT engineer last week. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Terry Morrow of St. Peter, still awaits Pawlenty’s signature or veto.
In an era when our transportation infrastructure is crumbling – sometimes with deadly consequences — it only makes sense to put experts in charge of improving it, give them the resources necessary for the job and do all we can to make getting around our state safer.
This year Minnesota has made some progress in those directions. But there is still much more to be done, and our lives and prosperity depend on it.