Minnesota transportation programs face cutbacks and urban sprawl issues

When the state government is millions of dollars in debt, people start to miss the little things first. Minnesota commuters are tightening their belts and bracing for quite a long, bumpy ride ahead.

As ballooning urban sprawl contributes to longer, more congested trips to work and school, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau has proposed eliminating 295 transportation jobs and cutting back on snow and ice removal, Highway Helper service, rest stops and road painting.

In addition, failure to pass controversial drunk driving legislation could cost the Minnesota Department of Transportation $6.64 million in highway funds next year.

To compound matters even further, the Metropolitan Council is proposing a 50-cent increase in rush-hour bus fares and temporarily eliminating 17 non-rush-hour bus routes.

In contrast to these fiscal reductions, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on March 16 pledged more than $1 billion in new road construction.

“Right now we are simply presenting our budget proposal, but nothing is a done deal yet,” said Dawn Hagen, MnDOT’s acting communications director. “We haven’t made any cuts yet because we’re still at the initial proposal stage.”

Longer drive time

During the 1990s boom years, an explosive metro economy with lucrative salaries expanded suburban home ownership, according to 2000 Census data.

Now, the Internet bubble has popped, but the sagging marketplace has not shrunk Minnesotans’ lengthy daily commutes.

The average Minnesotan takes 22 minutes to get to work, with one in 10 traveling 45 minutes or more. One in four has to leave the house before 7 a.m. Only 66 percent live in the same county as their workplaces, down from 77 percent in 1980.

At least 150 Twin Cities workers travel more than 200 miles to and from home every day, some as far away as western Wisconsin.

“It’s without question now that sprawl is increasing here dramatically,” said Lee Ronning, president of the local nonprofit 1,000 Friends of Minnesota. “We need to be forward-thinking and look past our immediate needs so that we can make well-thought-out decisions concerning our future.”

Ronning said she was skeptical of Pawlenty’s plan to attract new metro job growth and decrease congestion and pollution without raising taxes.

“I hope they really do find a magic wand or whatever, but I just don’t see it,” she said.

Piece by piece

The University’s Center for Transportation Studies could lose $450,000 from transit research project proposals and $100,000 from airplane-related research if Molnau’s proposal passes.

“This could mean fewer projects overall, and that affects researchers, teachers and graduate students,” said Gina Baas, the center’s communications manager. “We’re still trying to assess who all this would affect.”

MnDOT officials said they will need at least $15 billion until 2025 to keep pace with current congestion levels.

Gasoline taxes are expected to create $5 billion of that total. Most of the rest would come from license tab revenue, which is shrinking due to an auto sales decline.

MnDOT has pledged to cut $42.2 million internally to provide the money necessary to guarantee matching federal funds for the $550 million bonding tied to Pawlenty’s new roads plan.

Some Metropolitan Council proposals include a $1 rush-hour fare increase for Metro Mobility, which serves the elderly and the handicapped. The majority of bus routes the council is considering eliminating is in the still-expanding suburbs.

The House and Senate are reviewing Molnau’s plan, which would also close approximately 45 rest areas and reduce shoulder marking, litter pickup and mowing.

The operations and maintenance division would lay off 112 employees, resulting in less snowplowing and ice removal.

Drinking and driving

Opponents of new drunk driving legislation claim it will decrease liquor sales, overcrowd jails and limit local government finances. The bill, currently before House and Senate committees, would lower the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08 from 0.10.

“I don’t really see too much of a change if it actually goes down,” said Jake Streeter, bar manager at Sally’s Saloon and Eatery in Stadium Village. “I support the resolution.”

If the bill fails to pass by October 2004, MnDOT will lose $6.64 million in federal highway funding the first year. That amount will increase by 2 percent every year the bill is not passed.

“I just don’t think it’s very realistic Ö 0.02 does not really make that much of an impact,” said Brett Stebens, business manager for the Leaning Tower of Pizza on University Avenue. “It may not affect us specifically since we’re a restaurant, but it will make a difference with bars and nightclubs.”

Federal threats

The federal government has recently threatened several times to withhold transportation funding if local governments did not implement certain programs.

In February 2002, the federal government threatened to stop highway monies if New Mexico passed a bill that legalized medicinal marijuana use.

In August 2001, Earthjustice and other environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failure to halt the increase in air pollution around Sacramento, Calif. In response, the EPA recommended withholding federal highway funds and denying approval of new projects until the city met the required air toxicity levels.

In May 2001, several state lawmakers proposed a bill supported by former Florida gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno that would withhold federal highway funds from any state found to be continuing racial profiling by police.

Nathan Hall covers transportation and the environment and welcomes comments at [email protected]