What is it about Minnesota right-wingers and transportation issues? In most places, mobility isn’t much of a divisive issue. In most places, thoughtful people of all political stripes understand that a broad range of transportation resources is essential to a thriving economy.
Not in the Land of 10,000 Flakes. Here we’re told repeatedly that rising gasoline taxes constitute “theft” from our wallets, even as bridges collapse and the state highway system stands $50 billion short of meeting its 20-year performance goals. Here transit is the perennial whipping boy of conservatives, even as Minnesotans take millions more bus or light rail rides each year.
Former House Minority Leader Rep. Marty Seifert was so blinded by partisan ideology that he tried to put paid ads on gas pump video screens ripping fellow legislators who raised the fuel tax over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto. The gas stations, thinking better of stirring anger over the price of their product at the point of sale, showed some business sense and rejected the ads.
And that’s the problem with a lot of Minnesota conservatives when it comes to transportation policy – an alarming lack of business sense. These are the leaders who are supposed to be most friendly to free enterprise. Why then do they oppose such rock-ribbed groups as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce when it gets behind long-overdue public investments in roads, bridges and transit? Why did they brand the Legislature’s 2008 enactment the “transit bill” when the great bulk of its spending went to highways, which they profess to love?
This kind of bullheaded obstructionism doesn’t seem to thwart progress elsewhere in America. In deeply conservative, Republican-ruled regions such as Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and San Diego, government is aggressively expanding light-rail transit as well as freeways. Leaders and the public in those places know that their prosperity depends on all of it. In Washington state, Republican former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton just published an op-ed touting a light-rail extension in the Seattle area as one way to “maximize returns on transportation investments.”
On a national level, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Association are backing a modest increase in the federal fuel tax, which has lost a third of its buying power since it was last raised in 1993. Both these business groups believe an underfunded transportation system is hampering economic growth. These are the “Stalinist radicals” the Minnesota right is defending us from?
So Gopher State conservatives’ antipathy toward smart transportation policy remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. But here are a few possible explanations:
- Minnesota righties are in such distant exile from power that they’ll try anything to swing public opinion their way. Most Minnesotans don’t ride transit. Therefore, paint it as welfare on wheels and some full time drivers may endorse your attack on the minority.
- Any tax, any time, for any reason is anathema to these ideologues. They say raising taxes can’t always be the solution to our shared problems. In fact, it very seldom is, even with multi-billion-dollar state budget deficits. But for them, cutting taxes is always the way to go, no matter the economic or public safety consequences. With a stagnant fuel tax, they get their wish – tax cuts on autopilot as inflation saps the real buying power of per-gallon levies.
- Minnesota’s extreme conservatives bear a deep distrust of government that borders on hatred (except, I note, when it comes to waging needless foreign wars). Since from the days of the Erie Canal and transcontinental railroads nobody has figured out how to have an efficient transportation system without government involvement, the arch-conservative plan for Minnesota seems to be “Let’s not do it at all.”
If Minnesota is to prosper going forward, we need to reject this home-grown, knee-jerk foolishness and get behind roads, rails and the rest of the transportation alternatives that ultimately serve us all.
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