Forum discusses gas tax hike, state’s commuter congestion

Latasha Webb

Since 1982, Minnesota’s urban traffic congestion level rose 61 percent – the highest percentage increase in the country. The resulting gridlock and pollution have politicians contemplating solutions and discussing an increase in the gas tax.

The U.S. Department of Transportation chose Minnesota as the first state to host a forum where citizens expressed their concerns about transportation and environmental issues to politicians.

The forum took place at the West Bank’s Humphrey Institute on Tuesday, where the U.S. Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century – dubbed TEA-21 – was the main theme.

TEA-21 provides more than $81 billion to state transportation departments and transit agencies to spend on projects reducing toxic vehicular emissions.

“We wonder why people live 50 miles away from where they work,” said Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., who supported increasing the federal gas tax. “If people were paying the price for having bigger, less fuel-efficient cars, maybe they would live closer to work, but instead we subsidize it.”

Almost 90 percent of Minnesotans rely on a car as a primary transportation source, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Minnesota has an aging, growing population and a heavy concentration of people in one metro area, putting more people on the roads.

And Minnesota’s highway system has not expanded with the driving population, according to the transportation department.

“People are spending an average of a week more in their car every year because they can’t drive at posted speeds,” said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn.

Politicians and transportation experts also questioned citizens about traffic congestion and the environment.

Using hand-held voting machines, the majority of citizens present prioritized increased transit funding and non-motorized vehicles as most important.

Voters said technological vehicle improvements, such as making electric cars more marketable, and improving gas mileage would help the environment.

Oberstar, who also approves of increasing the tax, wants strategic implementation.

He said if people see the tax as a penalty, they will fight it. “You have to give them an incentive,” he said.

Sen. Julie Sabo, DFL-Minneapolis, who also wants to increase the gas tax, said middle-class communities resist changing their lifestyles. “Funding is going more toward comfort than environment, maintaining the status quo,” she said.

Latasha Webb welcomes comments at [email protected]