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More fuel for the transportation debate
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Among peer cities, the Twin Cities rate of congestion growth is second, with an increase in the number of solo drivers and a decrease in overall transit ridership. (MPR file photo)
Minnesota's transportation funding debate has gotten a big jolt with the release of a new study by the Citizens League. The private, non-profit Twin Cities public policy group recommends that Minnesota gas tax revenue, constitutionally dedicated for road and bridge building, be used for additional transportation needs. The study also says Minnesota's transportation problems won't be solved until more of the hidden costs are exposed and users pay more of them directly.

St. Paul, Minn. — The report recommends toll roads and higher registration fees for bigger and heavier vehicles, as a way of sending a more direct message to drivers about the real cost of transportation.

Then the Citizens League drops a bombshell. It recommends doing away with the state Constitution's provision which mandates use of gas tax money for roads.

The study group's chairman, Morrie Anderson, says short of wholesale change, at least the state should spend new gas tax revenue in a different way. Anderson doesn't say so, but the implication is that in addition to roads, some of the money should be used for rail and buses.

"We should at least take a look at -- any new revenues should be dedicated for all transportation services, and not distributed on a formula," he says.

Anderson is not a bomb thrower, he's a numbers cruncher. He's a former state revenue commissioner, the former head of the Minnesota State College and University system and chief of staff to former Gov. Arne Carlson.

The Citizens League study says the failure to include hidden costs of transportation influence how the region is developing. One of Minnesota's biggest hidden transportation costs is free parking.

Anderson says the right way to tackle Minnesota's transportation funding problems is to lay all the facts on the table. Right now, Anderson says, Minnesotans don't have good facts.

"I think citizens believe that if we raise the gas tax 5 cents or 10 cents (per gallon) we can fix most of the road problems."

We can't, Anderson says.

Take congestion. By one estimate, the Twin Cities region can solve congestion with 1,100 new miles of roadway. But the plan is for only 300 miles, and there's plenty of head-scratching underway to find the money for even that amount.

The Citizens League recommendations hit a dead end with the people who haul goods. Minnesota Trucking Association president John Hausladen says the ideas don't fit reality.

"We believe increased tolling is going to lead to a Balkanization of the transportation system. We think tying vehicle registration fees to weight, totally, has a disconnect between what vehicles carry and the value they bring to the system," says Hausladen. "Lastly, we think undedicating the highway trust fund is going to lead to a massive diversion for a system that is already cash- strapped."

The new chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, agrees. Holberg, a Republican from the southern Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville, says gas tax revenue has to remain dedicated to roads.

"We can't take care of what we have right now as far as needs go for roads, and there's not a total buy-in to the transit demand either," Holberg says. "I think most people would support increased funding for buses and busways. But the real money that they're looking for is in the rail systems, and there's still quite a bit of controversy around that." The authors of the Citizens League transportation study, titled, "Driving Blind," say our failure to include hidden costs of transportation influence how the region is developing.

Take sprawl in the Twin Cities metro area. The relatively low cost of gasoline, and the apparently low cost of owning and operating a vehicle, encourage people to live farther away from work. People are building on bigger lots, farther out, driving up the cost of supplying services. But, the study argues, they're not paying the added transportation costs directly.

The Citizens League report says one of Minnesota's biggest hidden transportation costs is free parking. Other groups have made the same point from an environmental angle. Lee Ronning, president of 1000 Friends of Minnesota, says there's nothing free about the acres of parking lots around suburban development.

"By providing for more free parking and parking lots you're encouraging people to use their automobiles and drive, which is polluting the air. That's a cost," Ronning says. "Somebody's going to clean it up or people are going to get sick from it, in addition to what it does to the runoff into our water supply."

The Citizens League report is the latest in what's become a cottage industry in Minnesota -- transportation studies. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Itasca Project added their voices to the debate last year. Gov. Pawlenty has proposed a money solution, a plan to borrow up to $4.5 billion for a massive construction assault to solve the state's transportation problems.