‘Minnesotans are the losers’ when divided Legislature plays politics with transportation

MoveMN-signcapitolRepublicans and Democrats rarely agree, but when the Minnesota Legislature convened in January 2015, leaders of the GOP House and the DFL Senate were sounding an awful lot alike.

It was time to address the state’s transportation needs, they agreed. And the state could not afford to wait.

Nearly two years later, Minnesotans are still waiting for a long-term, comprehensive solution to the transportation problem. What happened?

“It’s just partisan politics,” said Russell Hess, political coordinator for the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota.

A last-minute compromise bill floundered last session, after Republican leaders balked at funding for light-rail transit. A special session to reconsider the issue – as well as a jobs-creating capital investment bill – never materialized over the summer.

Hess said Republicans believed blocking light rail “would help them get votes in an election year.” Jennifer Munt, public affairs director for AFSCME Council 5, agreed.

“We can blame House Republicans for traffic jams and political gridlock,” Munt said. “It’s impossible to compromise on transportation when Republicans pit roads against transit, and pit Greater Minnesota’s needs against the metro.”

Indeed, traffic congestion now costs the average Minnesota commuter over $800 per year, according to the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, and that doesn’t account for the wear and tear inflicted on vehicles by potholes and aging infrastructure.

More than half of the state’s roads are 50-plus years old, and 40 percent of the state’s bridges are 40-plus years old. The number of roads in poor condition will grow by 74 percent over the next 10 years.

Anyone who takes a serious look at the issue, labor-endorsed Sen. Jim Carlson of Eagan said, realizes the state needs a long-term plan that pairs road-and-bridge funding with transit investments – and has a dedicated source of revenue.

“We have to be honest about it,” Carlson said. “We have a $600 million per year need that is going unmet. We need a dedicated funding system to create that revenue stream to fix our roads. That will not happen if we take money out of the general fund every two years.”

That’s the approach favored by Republicans, who would cut other areas of the state budget to pay for roads and bridges. Republicans don’t favor investments in transit either, and that’s not sitting well with voters in House District 43A, which includes Maplewood, White Bear Lake and other northeast suburbs.

“Mass transit is extremely frustrating not only for people living in my district, but people trying to travel to my district for education – including some really great programs at Century College – or for jobs,” labor-endorsed Rep. Peter Fischer said. “We’ve got to figure out how we connect people with the services they need.”

Labor-endorsed Rep. Barb Yarusso hears the same concerns in her north-metro House District 42A.

“In Arden Hills, there are more jobs than people, Shoreview has had a number of key business expansions and looks to add more, and Mounds View is seeing new development along County Highway 10,” Yarusso said. “Employers have access to a larger pool of employees if public transit is available.”

The cost of gridlock, meanwhile, is steep. The Transportation Alliance estimates project costs will increase by 10 percent each year lawmakers fail to act.

“Minnesotans are the losers, because the costs will only go up while our safety and economic competitiveness decline,” AFSCME’s Munt said.

So how can voters make sure the issue doesn’t remain a political football in St. Paul? It’s simple, according to Munt: “Let’s elect a Legislature that Gov. Dayton can work with to get transportation done right.”

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