In June I met with members of the Civic Caucus to discuss ongoing, major transportation issues in Minnesota. The non-partisan Civic Caucus, described as “a Minnesota e-group of senior policy wonks,” convenes once a week to engage in dialog on public issues and surface creative proposals for change.
This post is based on their report of our discussion. A second post will address congestion, suburbs vs.cities and other issues they raised.
The divided metro transit structure is a practical accommodation to reality.
Commenting on divided transit authority between the Metropolitan Council and county governments in the metro area, Kane said the arrangement is a practical accommodation to reality. A new quarter-cent sales tax for transit is, by law, being imposed by county governments, not the Metropolitan Council. It is somewhat unrealistic to put the county commissioners on the hook for raising the funds and expect them to hand off decision-making authority to another government entity.
Thus, the counties are empowered to decide how the new tax money will be distributed, consistent with the Metropolitan Council's policy plan. In the best of all worlds, you'd probably place more authority in the Council, but we have to be practical, he said. Moreover, many legislators consider the Council to be too closely tied to the Governor, because all Council members are appointed by the Governor to terms that are co-terminus with the Governor.
Growth & Justice is not a fan of the sales tax, Kane said, because it hits lower income persons disproportionately.
Minnesota transportation funds have been distributed as “entitlements,” rather than according to need. Fairness and accountability are likely to improve.
It was noted that several weeks ago, Ken Orski, a national transportation consultant, was critical of the way transportation funds are distributed in Minnesota. Orski's concern was that the funds are largely distributed to different levels of government according to statutory or constitutional formulas that bear little relationship to need. In effect, Orski said, the funds are "entitlements" for various levels of government.
Kane noted that the 2008 Legislature changed a formula for distribution of funds among counties to give greater account to transportation needs, not just an automatic distribution among counties, irrespective of needs. He also said that the Legislature has an interest in assuring that all parts of the state are treated equitably in distribution of revenue.
There are good reasons to place authority for transportation at the metro level as well as the state level.
A Civic Caucus member inquired whether more leadership and planning responsibility ought to exist at the state level, because of the critical role that transportation plays in the overall economy of the state.
Kane agreed that a statewide transportation system allows the safe and easy movement of people and goods. It makes places accessible to people. And it lays the base for business activity that fosters economic prosperity. Commerce needs roads, and businesses incur costs from congestion delays and poor road conditions. Wise investments in transportation infrastructure help put Minnesota’s households in a better position to benefit from economic growth. And a high-quality transportation system makes for faster commutes, reduced delays, fewer accidents, less fuel consumption and better air quality.
He noted, however, that it is useful to place some authority at the metro level, instead of with the state, because experience nationally has shown that metro-level decision makers are more likely to explore a variety of options for dealing with the much more complex transportation problem in the metro area, and more likely, too, to consider transit as a viable option. Because of the much larger number of trips and the accompanying congestion in the metro, investments in transit are important.
— Matt Kane