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Transportation: We Can Walk And Chew Gum At The Same Time

Category: Transportation
Posted: 04/01/17 12:48

by Dave Mindeman

One of the basic needs of any state is transportation. Minnesota has a bigger dependence than most because we have the 3rd biggest network of roads for any state in the nation.

So it is not surprising that we have to have a large transportation budget. But our Republican friends in the House seem to be locked into this idea that transportation is somehow a duality. That the metro and greater Minnesota are not one transportation system, but two entities that compete for transportation dollars.

In other words, we cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

The metro requires a lot of transportation investment. Especially while we are trying to modernize to a light rail system that every other Metro centric metropolitan area builds. And we long ago recognized that these dollars had to be supplemented with Metro tax dollars so as not to be too big a drain on the general fund. That is why there is a metro sales tax. That is why millions of dollars are raised directly from the seven county metro to meet those additional needs. The metro is not a burden to a statewide transportation system.

But the House Republicans insist that the metro still gets too much and are continuously tinkering with the budget to, a) pretend that they are "equalizing" the needs of greater Minnesota, and b) saving money from being wasted on "unnecessary light rail transit. Which is horse puckey.

Let's look at some actual statistics:

Transit support - Greater MN contributes $81 million. Metro contributes $359 million.

Average transportation spending per year - Outstate spends $925 million (68%). Metro spends $443 million (32%).

Where does revenue come from? Vehicle sales tax, vehicle registration fees, and fuel tax. 48% of revenue comes from outstate. 52% comes from metro.

Transportation spending per person - Outstate is $384. Metro is $149.

Clearly, when it comes to transportation spending, greater Minnesota sucks up a greater amount of dollars and contributes way less.

But nobody actually begrudges that. Anyone who examines the situation knows that state highways in greater Minnesota have a lot of miles to maintain for a lower number of people. But most people understand the need for the disparity...except, apparently, for the House Republicans, who refuse to look at the facts of the concept.

Still the perception that the MN House Republicans want to convey is that rural Minnesota is the one being shortchanged. That transit is a waste. And that we can't possibly take care of both.

Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.

The metropolitan Twin Cities area is the revenue engine for the state. There is little question about that. But light rail and transit is a particular need for the metro as opposed to rural MN - but the metro has recognized that fact and the majority of its funding comes from metro sales tax dollars, as well as Federal targeted funds.

I guess the main point I am trying to get to is that if there is a disparity in how transportation dollars are allocated, it is the Twin Cities that is getting the short end of the stick. And, when it comes to rail, even though we are footing the bill ourselves for the most part, the House Republicans want to either take that money away or transfer it out to their rural base.

In addition, the House Republicans continue to block new revenues that could alleviate some of the pressure. Transportation needs have continued to increase, yet, revenues have been stagnant - especially when it comes to the dedicated revenue from a gas tax.

Greater MN has a huge network of roads to maintain - and the fairest way to fund that is an increase in the gas tax (and the bulk of any increased revenue from that would largely come from the metro driver). Yet, the House Republicans refuse to even consider it and instead borrow their way (one GOP budget has a billion dollars in borrowing) to transportation fantasy land.

Looking ahead, our ability to get new revenue from a gas tax increase is a window that is closing. As hybrid or electric cars begin to flourish, the gas tax revenue will dwindle. That is why if we are behind in our transportation needs, a gas tax increase is so much more important now - while gas prices are low and the revenue is still there to be raised.

This whole debate on transportation is devoid of substance. It has become a political football and a bunch of divisive intra state foolishness.

We cannot continue to punt the issue forward. And we do not need to foolishly borrow money that can still be raised in the traditional user fee ways.

We really can walk and chew gum at the same time. So why don't we do that? OK?
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