Legislature should fix Minnesota’s transportation quagmire

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

For most Minnesotans, getting around during the past few weeks has been, to put it mildly, a mess. This winter has featured rapid swings in temperature and frequent storms around the freezing point – the ingredients for thick snow and thin, dangerous layers of ice. It’s evident that climate change has played a role, allowing cold air previously trapped in the arctic to blow southward while raising overall winter temperatures closer to 32 degrees.

These visible winter woes are, in multiple ways, symptomatic of an unfortunate choice made for decades both in Minnesota and around the country: investing the lion’s share of our resources in building routes and communities for cars, rather than people. We have multi-lane highways carving up our urban areas, parking lots larger than our football fields, and transit systems stuck in a spiral of cuts and losses in ridership.

The negative effects are everywhere you look, if you do so with an open mind. Transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, mostly due to commuter cars and light trucks. Air pollution from these vehicles strikes especially hard at low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where a high concentration of highways and major roads have been built. Exposure to air pollution is linked to many adverse health outcomes, such as heart disease, cancer, hypertension and asthma.

On the safety side, Minnesota suffers more than 300 traffic deaths each year – with 2021 being particularly deadly at 488 such deaths – and there’s no sign that we’ll reach the state goal of 225 or fewer by 2025. Many communities are remarkably difficult or unsafe to walk and bike around, especially for children. And this is compounded during this time of year when poor maintenance only makes the ice and snow more treacherous. Meanwhile, many families’ budgets take a hit whenever circumstances beyond their control cause a spike in gas prices.

Then there’s the impact on nature: water contamination from road salt, flooding exacerbated by parking lots, and destruction of habitat to build ever more highway lanes. And if you’re concerned about microplastics in air and water, it may interest you to know that car tires are a leading source, estimated to be in the top two origins for plastic particles in the ocean.

There’s got to be a better way

We’re not going to radically restructure our entire transportation economy overnight. Plenty of Minnesotans have no choice but to drive to the places they need to go, even through hellish snow and ice. Cars will be with us for some time. 

So reducing the amount of miles that Minnesotans drive (vehicle miles traveled, or VMT) should be our north star on transportation funding and policy. Electric vehicles, while an important part of the puzzle, won’t be able to to reduce traffic accidents on the scale needed or get us all the way to a net-zero economy.

We believe many Minnesotans are open to alternatives to our current single-occupant vehicle path. The question is: how can we use public policy and investments to help them get there?

Revitalizing public transit

Most of Minnesota’s population lives in metropolitan areas – the Twin Cities or regional urban centers like Duluth, Rochester, or St. Cloud – that are already served by existing transit systems. But that doesn’t mean that those systems are convenient for all or even most residents. If a bus only shows up every half hour, or doesn’t reach certain residential or commercial areas where people want to go, it’s difficult to plan a commute or a trip to the grocery store. For many, the stress of waiting for a bus may outweigh the stress of finding parking.

The most successful transit systems in the world have frequent service and convenient stops – that’s what we need to emulate. If we invested more into the operation of our transit services, we could afford to make transit competitive with driving not only on cost and environmental terms, but on convenience. One proposal this Legislative session would introduce a modest Twin Cities-area sales tax increase to fund public transit operations, which have faced shortfalls exacerbated by the pandemic.

But beyond convenience, many would-be riders – not to mention drivers – in the Twin Cities who would like to use the bus or light rail are deterred from doing so these days because of a very real fear of safety issues, such as violence or public drug use on trains and buses. Increased ridership could help reduce this problems, but we can’t naively expect to draw in new riders if they feel unsafe.

Fortunately, the Legislature seems likely to act on safety this year. On Friday, Representative Brad Tabke held an informal Zoom hearing to discuss his proposal to reduce crime and nuisances on MetroTransit, especially on the light rail. The plan would include funding for social workers, Metro Transit police, and unarmed transit ambassadors to help deter crime, with the goal being to reestablish norms of respectful ridership.

While it’s the largest Minnesota transit system and has the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions the most, Metro Transit isn’t the only service in need of investments. Other metro areas around the state, as well as rural counties, should have more reliable and accessible ways to get around without a car. And more linkages between them would help, like the proposed Northern Lights Express from St. Paul to Duluth – which may receive state funding for planning this year – the North Star commuter rail extension to St. Cloud, or the Dan Patch commuter line to Northfield. In many other countries in Europe and Asia, intercity rail is fast, affordable, and low-carbon, and there’s no reason Minnesota can’t enjoy the same benefits.

Supporting active transportation

For the vast majority of transit riders, getting around without a car doesn’t mean leaving your home, immediately stepping onto a bus or train, and arriving right at your destination – there’s going to be walking or biking involved. And many trips can be made on foot or two wheels alone. But for far too many Minnesotans, those means of getting around aren’t options – not for any lack of willingness to walk or bike, but because the infrastructure we’ve built makes it too dangerous. This especially harms children, people with disabilities, and others who can’t drive.

Too many of our roads have been constructed with the single minded purpose of moving as many cars as possible, with little regard for those who might want to bike on them or cross them, no matter their legal right to do so. That means that a large part of this issue is an engineering problem. Protected bike lanes, crosswalks with signals, separated trails, and conversions from four-lane to three-lane roads make roads safer for all who use them, not just drivers. That’s why MEP strongly supports the use of state infrastructure dollars to make it

We also need policies that make it clear that safety for bikers and pedestrians isn’t an afterthought. Our friends at the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota are spearheading the Bill Dooley Bicycle Safety Act, which contains new bicycle safety and education policies and helps direct funds toward active transportation infrastructure in our communities.

End highway growth

Highway lanes have a lot in common with fossil fuel infrastructure. They’re the counterpart to oil pipelines, stimulating demand for oil by stimulating the growth in cars on the road. New lanes don’t cure traffic woes, but they do tend to destroy habitat or community space, even homes. The infamous construction of I-94 through Saint Paul destroyed the Rondo neighborhood and displaced a generation of mostly Black residents.

Too often, transportation agencies prioritize expanding or building new highways rather than repairing the old ones, to the detriment of our climate and our infrastructure. MEP supports a “fix-it-first” approach to road funding to help reduce highway expansions wherever possible.

Many Minnesotans are now looking at ways we can scale back or modify our existing highway network to better serve people who live around it. Proposals to reconnect Rondo using a land bridge or replacing I-94 in St. Paul with a boulevard are gaining traction. Similarly, a group of Duluth community members are working to replace the downtown stretch of I-35 into a greener, more vibrant neighorhood. They’ll need official support from the Legislature in order to make progress on studying these solutions.

The challenge ahead

It won’t be easy to reduce our reliance on cars in our wintery state, but it is possible. We have examples for how to get it done from around the world, using trains, buses, bicycles, and sidewalks. With enough political will, the dream of a Minnesota where all who choose to can live without relying solely on a car may be closer than it appears.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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