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Session 2001 Wrap-up: Transportation
By Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
July 2, 2001
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Even supporters of the $3.5 billion transportation funding package approved by the Legislature and governor say they're disappointed it doesn't do more for roads in the state. The bill does provide a substantial one-time boost for mass transit in the Twin Cities, it delays for a year, the rebuilding of Crosstown Highway 62, and it prevents MnDOT from spending money set aside for a new Stillwater bridge on other projects. But transportation planners and lobbyists say the state is still a long way from resolving the ongoing deadlock over long-term transportation funding.


January 23, 2001 - Gov. Ventura proposes transportation budget

April 19, 2001 - Biodiesel debate pits farmers and transportation interests

June 29, 2001 - Lawmakers agree on transportation bill

June 30, 2001 - Legislature adjourns after passing transportation package
MINNESOTA DEPUTY TRANSPORTATION COMMISSIONER Doug Weiszhar says the lawmakers declined this season to deal with the state's transportation needs - roads, bridges, buses and rail.

"There was not a full-funding situation for the program we have been promoting through the governor's office," according to Weiszhar.

Fred Corrigan, executive vice president of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a St. Paul lobbying and advocacy group, says the course charted by lawmakers this session perpetuates adherence to road building with little elbow room to fund transportation options.

"This budget is not consistent with the current federal law, which allows state a lot more flexibility than this budget takes advantage of," Corrigan says.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Ted Mondale says it could have been a lot worse. House lawmakers proposed transit cuts that would have reduced service on 20 to 30 Twin Cities public bus lines. In the end, the proposals died and Metro Transit's budget will increase $30 million. However Mondale says almost all the money will go to pay salaries and health-coverage increases. There'll be little - if any - left over to expand bus service.

Mondale says status quo road and transit funding for a fast-growing metropolitan area creates problems. "If you don't fix the roads, the buses ride on the roads, so there's still 20, 25 major bottlenecks going forward still unfunded, and you can't have a successful transit system if the roads are clogged up. And if you don't have a successful transit system, you're going to have clogged roads," Mondale says.

It's not like lawmakers did nothing; $3.5 billion is a lot of money and about $2 billion over the next two years will go to road and bridge building in Minnesota. And last session they sweetened the state's transportation budget with an additional $500 million. This session they considered but declined to add another sweetener of $300 million.

What worries transportation advocates is by the state's own reckoning, Minnesota over the next 20 years faces a $10 billion cost to replace and expand roads, bridges, harbors, airports, rail lines and transit systems, and lawmakers haven't figured out how to pay for it. They declined, for example, to increase the state's gasoline tax. They decided against endorsing a plan to allow some sales-tax revenue to be used for transportation, including transit funding.

Barb Thoman, co-chair of the St. Paul-based Transit for Livable Communities, an advocacy group, says transit lost ground this session. "Beyond the status-quo funding of the transit system, the House Republicans ensured that there'd be no money to pay for continued work on the Northstar Corridor Commuter Line, no money for the Midwest high-speed rail network, no money to study any new bus or rail corridors," she says.

Lawmakers instead focused on the tax rebate and a massive property-tax overhaul. Taxpayers appear to support those actions, but Metropolitan Council Chairman Ted Mondale says public opinion surveys also show support for solving the state's transportation problems, and he thinks lawmakers will hear it.

"I think the public is ahead of the politicians right now and I think the public is going to say, 'we're willing to pay to not wait in line all day, it's a huge pain for us; it's unproductive, we need to get our employees to work and back and it's time for government to invest some money to make sure that we don't totally choke off our transportation system here.' That's what they're going to hear," according to Mondale.

Several lawmakers predict transportation will be at or near the top of the legislative agenda when they reconvene early next year.