In the Spotlight

News & Features

Transportation: Candidates split over rail and resources
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
October 14, 2002


Transportation has become one of the defining issues in the governor's race. The four major-party candidates are divided over everything from raising the gas tax to expanding light rail. Some voters say the candidates' views on transportation will determine their vote.

Elwyn Tinklenberg, who just left his post as MnDOT commissioner, says the biggest drawback to Tim Pawlenty's plan is that it's limited to road projects.

One of the feistiest exchanges of the governor's race so far came during a recent debate on transportation issues. Before an audience of people in the highway construction business, the candidates sparred over light rail and how to pay for transportation projects. Democrat Roger Moe says he thinks voters are willing to pay an extra nickel a gallon gas tax to improve the state's transportation system.

"I think that you have to be straightforward with people. If you're going to have additional road construction or bridge replacement or transit buses or whatever the case may be, I think you have to be honest with people that you're going to have to pay for them right up front."

Independence Party candidate Tim Penny also supports an increase of at least five cents in the state's 20-cent a gallon gas tax. The tax hasn't been raised since 1988. Penny and Moe are critical of Republican Tim Pawlenty's proposal to borrow for $2 billion worth of road projects instead of raising the gas tax. Penny says the state can't afford to make payments on $2 billion worth of bonds, with a budget deficit that could top $3 billion.

"Bonding is not a free lunch. You either have to pay back those bonds out of trunk highway funds, which means that you're going to rob from Peter to pay Paul. You're going to pay for today's construction program with tomorrow's gas tax dollars."

Pawlenty says his plan is the only way to address a 20-year backlog of road projects. He told a group of business leaders that it puts more money into roads than a hike in the gas tax.

"The value of this is you accelerate some of these big projects from 10, 15, 20 years out to now. And you save a lot of money in the actual cost of the project, and the better news is, we actually see the benefits of this before you're all dead."

Pawlenty tells audiences that if they run his plan past business experts, they'll find it makes economic sense. He says low interest rates mean the state can borrow money at 3 or 4 percent, while the cost of projects is going up 10-15 percent a year.

Former MnDOT chief of staff Bob McFarland supports Pawlenty's plan. McFarland, who worked for MnDOT under Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and during one year of Gov. Ventura's term, says raising the gas tax by a few cents won't put the needed infusion of money into the system.

"A gas tax increase, pay-as-you-go only type of approach simply is not going to meet those needs. It needs something different. We shouldn't be debating right now whether or now to bond. That isn't the question, that's a no-brainer. We should be debating how much to bond for, and how to pay for it."

Critics of Pawlenty's proposal say they're not opposed to bonding, but it should be part of a broader transportation package. Elwyn Tinklenberg, who just left his post as MnDOT commissioner, says the biggest drawback to Pawlenty's plan is that it's limited to road projects.

"That's part of the problem with Mr. Pawlenty's proposal is that it's only related to the trunk highway fund. And it doesn't provide for a multi-modal account that helps us make long-term investments in our bus service and in our rail programs."

Green Party candidate Ken Pentel wants to invest in buses and rail, but not new roads. Pentel says he wants to reduce urban sprawl. He says if he's elected, he'll stop road construction in the seven-county metro area, and maintain existing roads.

"Then what I'll do is start establishing tax incentives to contract the area into more, like I say, mixing maybe more business and residential together, restoration of existing structure, trying to establish more localized needs."

Pentel opposes a gas tax increase because it's dedicated to roads and bridges. He says he would pay for transit projects by taxing high-polluting vehicles and raising car license tab fees. He also wants to create incentives for businesses to install showers and lockers to encourage employees to bike to work. Pentel hasn't owned a car in twenty years, and usually gets around by bike, although he borrowed a van for the campaign. Pawlenty often points out that 95% of Minnesotans get around by car, and even if transit ridership doubles, nine out of ten people will still drive to work.

The most recent Minnesota Public Radio/St. Paul Pioneer Press poll showed slightly more than half of those polled would support a gas tax increase to fund road projects. About the same number would support a tax increase to pay for roads and transit projects. MPR recently asked people on its e-mail list for their top issues of concern. While it's not a scientific poll, of the more than 500 Minnesotans who responded, more than 200 listed transportation and transit as top issues.

Among those who responded was Bill Pinegar of Orono, who said he's frustrated by what he considers the short term viewpoint of the candidates. Pinegar, who works in the software business, says leaders tend to be swayed by the "give it back" mentality, and they don't think about the way Minnesota's population will change in the next 50 years.

"I travel a lot, and I've done some travel in Europe, and I find their systems of public transportation are much better developed than ours, and I believe that if we looked ahead, we could develop equal or better means of good, rapid mass-transit."

Pinegar says he would support a combination of bonding and a gas tax increase to pay for transportation. Others who responded from outstate Minnesota are frustrated with what they see as a focus on the transportation needs of the metro area. Anne Bier of Virginia says the candidates ignore rural Minnesota. Bier, a substitute teacher, says there's no bus system in her area, and the roads are, in her words, "pretty lumpy". Bier says she doesn't understand why lawmakers don't just raise the gas tax.

"I think that they could raise the gas tax and frankly, nobody would notice. I mean, the gas price, all over the whole country and certainly here, it fluctuates a penny, two, three, oh, it just went up a dime, just went down a nickel, nobody much notices."

Bier says she doesn't like the idea of borrowing money to pay for road projects, because then the state has to pay interest on the bonds.

The candidates are divided on transit as well. Moe, Penny and Pentel support expanding light rail beyond the Hiawatha corridor between Minneapolis and Bloomington. The three also support the Northstar commuter rail line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis. Pawlenty says rail hasn't been proven to be cost-effective.

More from MPR
  • Audio: Transportation debate (9/30/02)