Transit funds deserve green light from state

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of Monday editorials that will examine the state budget surplus.
Minnesotans must use this year’s $1.3 billion budget surplus as leverage against the next recession. Research and development, both public and private, should be funded. Higher education ought to be improved. And transit, the often-overlooked and always under-funded stepchild of urban sprawl, must enjoy legislative attention. Cutting-edge industries, bringing new products to market with highly-trained workers, will bring Minnesota through the slump that will hit sooner or later.
But without good transit options, those workers won’t fill the jobs. The products won’t come to market, and the state won’t be able to exploit its human or material capital. How people and things move around is a fundamental part of how well the economy performs. It’s also a question left largely to the public to decide; the state, not Honeywell, builds roads. Lately, Minnesota has built too many roads without enough alternatives. When connecting Greater Minnesota with the Twin Cities, interstate and state highways are adequate. Generally, when labor moves from International Falls to Bloomington, it’s a one-way trip.
But within the Twin Cities, labor is less mobile. A worker in Andover whose skills are needed in Apple Valley must either spend two hours a day in a car or relocate to the south. This represents a significant barrier against the movement of labor in the local market. The result is inefficiency — companies and workers cannot adapt quickly to meet the demand for new products or services. The metro area is just too large to rely on roads alone for transit.
Buses provide a flexible transit alternative but have several drawbacks that make more bus lines a bad state investment. The very flexibility of buses is a long-term disadvantage; routes can be eliminated almost overnight, leaving workers and employers suddenly without efficient transit. Buses are also generally unpopular, driving down ridership and political support. Today’s investment in metro buses is likely to be undone next year or the year after. Finally, buses expand state reliance on roads. Perversely, money spent on buses increases the institutional value of inefficient metro highways.
Rail-bound transit overcomes these deficiencies. Commuter rail, once built, stays in place. It tends to be popular with the public when built, increasing the chances of expanding non-road transit options. Moreover, the Legislature has the option of using a relatively small state investment of $100 million this year to build $300 million in commuter rail, thanks to federal matching funds. That would be enough to build a rail route from downtown Minneapolis, the state’s business capital, to the airport and the Mall of America via Hiawatha Avenue. This first step would increase labor flexibility between downtown and the southern suburbs and also lock the Twin Cities into a course of rail expansion. Metro commuter rail is a critical investment for the state’s long-term economic welfare and should be funded this year.