Legislature tackles transportation challenge

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

A couple months ago, in the midst of some of the worst winter road conditions Minnesota has seen in years, our MEP Insider focused on one of our major environmental challenges: how to fix our transportation system to generate less carbon, put more destinations in reach for those without personal vehicles, and make our roads safer for all who use them.

Transportation is Minnesota’s number one source of climate pollution and one of our largest causes of accidental deaths. Business as usual – where we build endless highway lanes and neglect other ways to get around – isn’t working for Minnesotans. State agencies recognize the need for a change, and building a cleaner, more equitable system is an integral part of the Climate Action Framework released by the Walz Administration. 

Today, we’re pleased to report that the Minnesota Legislature is on the verge of the biggest push in recent history towards cleaner, safer transportation. 

On Thursday, April 27, the Minnesota Senate passed its Transportation Omnibus Bill, following the House’s passage of its counterpart bill last week. The bills have key differences, necessitating a conference committee of Representatives and Senators to iron them out. But both versions are a huge step forward for how we get around in Minnesota. This effort will both reduce the carbon emissions of Minnesota’s transportation network and create a more equitable system for Minnesotans to get around. It will especially help residents of communities disproportionately affected by air pollution from highways.

The list of good ideas in the omnibus is much longer than what can be found here, but MEP has especially focused on the following provisions in our advocacy:

Keeping Twin Cities transit rolling

From an environmental and public safety standpoint, our biggest challenge with transportation is reducing vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs. Science and economics tells us that vehicle electrification will play a role in reducing emissions, and we’re glad to see that both versions of the bill include more than $13 million for electric vehicle infrastructure. But electrification won’t be enough if we don’t simultaneously give people options to reduce the miles that they drive.

According to MnDOT, Minnesota’s VMTs have increased almost twice as fast as population growth over the last three decades. The largest share of those VMTs happen in the Twin Cities Metro, particularly in the suburbs. While rural drivers tend to drive farther, there are a lot fewer of them. If we want to make a dent in VMTs, our biggest target should be Metro-area VMTs.

Thankfully, the Transportation Omnibus bills both put resources toward our most effective solution: making Twin Cities-area transit bigger, faster, more convenient, and more reliable. While they put some budget surplus dollars toward transit, the bills’ most notable contribution is introducing a seven county metro sales tax dedicated to transit operations, creating an ongoing source of funding. As Senate Transportation Chair Scott Dibble has said, there is no surplus for transportation: our transit system needs sustainable annual funding to pay drivers and fuel costs.

The tricky part of this omnibus is that the House and Senate bills didn’t set the sales tax at the same rate: the House tax is 0.75 percent, while the Senate rate is only 0.5%. MEP has written to the Legislature supporting the higher number to ensure that MetroTransit can expand bus and train service closer to the scale needed to address our needs. But the fact that the Legislature is poised to pass a sales tax for transit at all is a testament to tremendous organizing by environmental and economic justice organizations.

With this Metro sales tax, many Twin Cities residents will have a much easier time commuting without a car, especially as Bus Rapid Transit lines expand around the Metro. It will especially help low-income residents who lack access to a car or face the uncertainty of fluctuating gas prices.

Passenger rail

Today, the only practical, affordable way to get between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports – the state’s two largest urban areas – is I-35, whether by personal car or bus. As many of us can attest, I-35 can be slow going, especially in inclement weather or construction season, and it generates significant carbon emissions. But it didn’t used to be the only way.

Part of the reason Duluth grew rapidly in the late 1800s was the efforts of the railroad tycoon Jay Cooke to build the Northern Pacific Railway to Duluth. For nearly a century, Duluth was part of a robust passenger rail network, and it was easy to travel by train around Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the rest of the Midwest. But Minnesota defunded the train to Duluth nearly 40 years ago.

Today, a faster version of the Twin Cities-Duluth train is moving ahead. The Northern Lights Express project plans for a train that would make four round trips a day at 90 miles per hour between the two areas. Travel time will be comparable to car travel in optimal conditions and would beat it in bad weather and during rush hour. Rail is one of the most energy efficient ways to move large groups of people quickly, so the Northern Lights could help take a big chunk out of carbon emissions on the I-35 corridor.

Until this year, the Northern Lights was in limbo due to a lack of state support, but both versions of the Transportation Omnibus include funding for the project, which will be primarily supported with federal dollars.

The bill also features money to support expanded Amtrak service for the Empire Builder train between the Twin Cities and Chicago. More Amtrak service can help reduce both car trips and replace flying for many travelers.

Active Transportation

Full disclosure: I frequently commute by bicycle and usually enjoy it, apart from the time that I was lightly hit by a car at a busy intersection. I’m also a dad, and I’m a little worried that the streets near my home will be less than safe for my daughter once she’s old enough to walk and ride a bike of her own.

The Transportation budget looks out for folks like me, both in the Metro and around the state, by investing in active transportation. This funding supports sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, traffic signals, and all sorts of other local projects that make it easier to walk, bike, and roll to destinations. Safety is often cited as one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from getting around without a car, and it’s no wonder why – just look at a suburban shopping mall and ask yourself how you would safely walk or bike to it.

The funding will come in multiple buckets: $50 million for the Active Transportation program and over $20 million the Safe Routes to School program. The Active Transportation Program provides grants to communities, counties, and nonprofits to build projects like bike trails, crosswalks, crossing signals, and medians that make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians to get around. The Safe Routes to School program focuses specifically on these infrastructure investments near schools. Grants from both programs are available across the state.

Climate Action

Finally, the transportation budget will require agencies to start examining the impacts of their decisions on the climate. It requires MnDOT to assess the climate impact of highway projects (which are indeed big contributors to carbon emissions) and mitigate their climate impact. And the Metropolitan Council will have a climate action component in its long term comprehensive planning. Both of those policies will be particularly helpful for communities suffering from concentrated air pollution and the urban heat island effect, since they tend to be disproportionately affected by highway and road expansions.

The bill also sets up a working group among several state agencies to broadly examine the climate challenge of transportation fuel in the state and study the possibility of addressing it with a clean transportation standard. Like  the 100% carbon-free electricity standard set earlier this year, a clean transportation standard could create an offramp and benchmarks for eliminating net emissions from Minnesota’s vehicles by 2050. This study doesn’t mandate the standard itself, but would help gather input for it from scientists, companies, tribal communities, environmental advocates, and other interested Minnesotans.

And a bonus for pollinators

One additional victory in this omnibus is a small but positive change for pollinators and other wildlife species, the Highways for Habitat program. This program would help use sound ecological practices – like reducing mowing and pesticide use – to provide Minnesota species with safe habitat at the sides of our highways.

MEP will continue to weigh in on this bill as its conference committee begins their deliberations, and we hope to see the Senate adopt the House level for the sales tax for transit. But these bills’ passage is already a monumental victory for clean transportation in Minnesota. It sets up a foundation for a bright future where Minnesotans will be able to breathe easier, walk more safely, and get around more easily without a car.

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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