After more than a decade of rolling state budget deficits and finance gimmicks brought on by conservative cut-taxes-and-spend-anyway policies, it was heavy lifting for progressive leaders to return Minnesota government to structural fiscal balance and tax fairness. Not even progressives relish raising taxes, but it's a tough job and somebody's got to do it when the budget's busted.
Congratulations are due the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton for their good work finally getting the state's house in order. Unfortunately, that mighty task left no energy for attacking our state's transportation deficit, which may not be glaring to the eye, but is just as real as red ink in the state general fund.
"We are grossly underfunded," state Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle told the Brainerd Dispatch. "It's not politics; it's arithmetic."
More than half the state's roads are past their life expectancy of 50 years and in need of costly rebuilding, and more than 40 percent of the bridges are over 40 years old, Zelle noted. Meanwhile, fuel taxes haven't kept up with needs in the face of declining driving and greater vehicle efficiency. But, as Zelle pointed out, it's hard to arouse a sense of urgency for a long-term crisis.
Minnesota policymakers didn't totally ignore transportation this year. They authorized $300 million in trunk highway bonding, pushing the state near its limit for that financing tool. They appropriated $37 million in general funds to keep the Southwest light rail project on course after conservatives stonewalled a far better strategy for long-term capital investments: state borrowing at historically low interest rates. They filled statewide transit operating deficits with general fund money as well.
Despite a $11 million cash infusion for Greater Minnesota transit, it "will only allow the state to meet 60 to 65 percent of the identified transit needs rather than meeting the statutory goal of 80 percent by 2015," said Barb Thoman of the Transit for a Stronger Economy Coalition.
Proposals for local sales taxes for transit and higher fuel taxes for roads and bridges were left in the dust. A while back I called for a belt-and-suspenders approach -- bonding and sales taxes -- to support transit. Neither happened. Given the unpalatability of raising the gasoline tax for better roads and bridges, it's no surprise that went nowhere, either.
For the next couple of years, at least, it seems we're going sansabelt on transportation. Let's pray we don't get caught with our pants down.
Despite what most of us were taught in kindergarten, the American "ownership society," to quote George W. Bush, hasn't been very good at sharing. One example: We own millions more cars than there are licensed drivers.
But maybe the All Mine Culture is evolving, especially when it comes to urban transportation. Modern bicycle sharing is spreading to every corner of the country, so fast that the U.S. fleet of 9,000 shared bikes is projected to quadruple in the next couple of years as dozens more cities get on board.
Minneapolis, already served by Zipcar and HOURCAR auto-sharing services, is launching a two-year pilot program to make up to 250 vehicles available for occasional use.
Meanwhile, U.S. driving has been declining for nearly a decade. There are economic reasons for this -- Great Recession joblessness that reduced commuting and the $7,800 annual cost of owning and maintaining the average American private car -- but lifestyle changes of both younger and older Americans are playing a part, too.
Driving our own cars everywhere we go is still the dominant U.S. mode of mobility, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But as shared transportation choices proliferate and become more convenient, everyone benefits. Early adopters get better health and lower costs, drivers face less traffic congestion and we all share cleaner air.
Tea Party stalwart Rand Paul, son of Ron and a U.S. senator from Kentucky, has proposed a new way to pay for transportation projects. This is good news, of a sort: a government-shrinking, tax-averse conservative acknowledging that public infrastructure indeed should be supported by public funds.
What's not so encouraging is Paul's financing method—huge tax cuts for corporations. Say what? He'd slash the tax rate for repatriating overseas capital to the states from its current level, as high as 35 percent, all the way down to 5 percent. Presumably, he thinks we'd get a windfall of homesick money far exceeding the trickle now shedding one-third to repatriate. As if by supply-side magic, the rate goes down and collections skyrocket, covering existing revenue while producing new riches for roads and bridges.
Given the track record of similar right-wing cut-tax-and-then-spend schemes in the past, that happy outcome is anything but assured. What's more, for years, U.S. multinational corporations have been pleading for as little as a one-day repatriation tax holiday. Perhaps Paul's bill just puts a popular face on an extreme pro-capital fiscal policy.
As transportation policy, as well, his idea comes with at least two major drawbacks:
- Deeply discounted repatriation might provide one-time revenue, but roads and bridges need never-ending funding. Even "one-time" construction of a new highway puts government on the hook for costly maintenance as far as the eye can see.
- Looking to deep corporate pockets for transportation money would put one more stake in the heart of what's left of the user-pays principle. With taxes on driving frozen nearly everywhere, roads and bridges nationwide now draw at least half their funding from non-user sources. In the long run, this isn't good for either our mobility or our prosperity.
In fact, nationwide transportation funding is looking more and more like our own Vikings stadium finance fiasco: We'll be sure to get the goodies we want, but heaven forfend that we pay for them out of the obvious pockets.
In the great debate among bicyclists -- helmet or not -- a couple of young Swedish women may have come up with a way to split the difference. Their invention, in limited commercial rollout but backed by $10 million in venture capital, mimics automobile airbag technology: out of sight until needed.
The Hövding invisible bike helmet is worn in a pouch around the neck until embedded sensors detect the start of a tumble. Then it deploys into a large, hoodlike cushion to protect the head from impact.
This could appeal to appearance-conscious riders but may not settle a deeper-seated argument over the best approach to bicycle safety. In much of bicycle-friendly Europe and by some U.S. cycling enthusiasts, helmets are disdained as falsely signaling that biking is inherently very risky. In this camp, as well, it's believed that helmets unfairly put the responsibility for safety on bicyclists rather than on drivers or public provision of separate lanes for two-wheelers.
On the other hand, many bicyclists consider helmets a common-sense response to actual dangers. This week's Ride of Silence, commemorating cyclists killed or injured in crashes, requires helmets, even though the ride won't exceed 12 m.p.h. And a young Minneapolis bike commuter I know says he could have died several times in spills but for his helmet.
At Minnesota 2020, we think helmets are the smart choice for anyone traveling by motorcycle or bicycle, just as seat belts make eminent sense for motorists and their passengers.
Taking on what they called an "impossible" challenge, Swedes Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin developed the 1½- pound battery-powered pop-up helmet as part of a master's degree thesis. Be sure to check the crash-test video on the link above. No word yet, though, on U.S. retail availability. In Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Turkey, it lists at about $520, and about $75 for stylish extra airbag shells.
This Wednesday bicyclists will gather across the world for the 10th anniversary Ride of Silence, both a commemoration of cyclists killed in traffic crashes and a plea for coexistence with motorists on public right of way. Minnesotans have joined the observance since 2006; this year's rides in Alexandria, Mankato and St. Paul are among 293 scheduled in 47 states and worldwide.
"This is a slow, silent ride," Twin Cities organizer Ron Schwartz posted on the web. "In the spirit of Share the Road, we will obey all traffic laws and remain in the bike lane riding single file. Riders of all abilities welcome. Helmets required." Schwartz is the brother of Larry Schwartz, an Ultracycling Hall of Fame inductee whose death when struck by a school bus in Texas 10 years ago inspired the first Ride of Silence.
St. Paul participants this year are to gather at 6:30 p.m. May 15 at Mississippi River Boulevard and Summit Avenue. A short ceremony to honor cyclists killed or injured will precede the 7 p.m. ride on Summit to Ramsey Street and back. There's no charge to participate.
This is a great way to promote awareness of and concern for bicyclists, as well as instilling in pedal-pushers a healthy regard for their own responsibilities on the pavement. It beats the in-your-face posturing of some spandex-clad road racers and Critical Mass anarchists any day.
With 93 percent of U.S. transportation powered by oil, our airplanes, trains, boats and automobiles suck up 13.6 million barrels of petroleum each day. According to Face the Facts USA at George Washington University, that adds up to more fuel burned than in all the other countries of the world combined except China. Our greenhouse gas emissions are second only to China's, which has four times the U.S. population.
Transportation is by far the most oil-dependent U.S. industry, consuming 71 percent of our petroleum. It's good that most of it is extracted within our own borders these days, but the environmental and economic byproducts are less welcome.
Basic economics tells us that such powerful, largely inelastic demand is likely to raise the price of black gold, whether from Texas or Iraq. While gasoline prices have recently eased, last year they took their biggest chunk of average U.S. household income in three decades -- $2,912 -- according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
It would have been worse yet without efficiency gains in the U.S. auto fleet, the department reported. In 2011, gasoline consumption nationwide was at the lowest level since 2001. Still, the department said, "higher prices in 2011 and 2012 outweighed the effect of reduced consumption."
There's no quick way to kick our addiction to oil. It will take decades of technological development and smart multimodal transportation planning along with some cultural changes to chip away at it. We can't let our native autocentrism keep us from steady progress to a less oily future.
Our nation leads the world in all things automotive, but when it comes to bicycling, we're not even a contender. A new list of the globe's top 20 bike-friendly cities includes not one in the United States.
The cities on the consulting firm Copenhagenize's honor roll are in Europe, except for two in Japan, one in Brazil and a lone North American outpost in Montreal, Canada. None is in an impoverished Third World country, and some endure winter climates harsher even than ours in Minnesota.
In fact, prosperity and bicycling culture go hand-in-hand in ways U.S. autocentrism can't match. Business Insider reports that in Denmark every kilometer cycled returns 23 Euro to the nation's economy while every kilometer driven drains 16 Euro. This calculation from Copenhagenize is based on cyclists' higher local spending and Denmark's lack of fossil fuel resources.
Minnesotans might have hoped we'd make the top 20 with Minneapolis' No. 1 ranking among U.S. cities for biking. No such luck. And a new listing from the League of American Bicyclists drops the Gopher State to No. 4 in the nation, down from No. 2 last year and behind Washington state, Colorado and Oregon.
Still other states are gaining fast, according to the league. Minnesota has been an early adopter of bicycle-friendly policies, but we need to step up our game to stay ahead of the U.S. pack and, just maybe, crack the international top 20. It would strike a blow for our health, our environment and our economic vitality.
"Rogue On Minnesota" blogger Norann Dillon took exception the other day in MinnPost to my recent analysis of options for financing transit expansion in the Twin Cities. My suggested mix of state bonding and regional sales taxes, she wrote, "will be a noose on future generations."
Dillon, last year's conservative legislative candidate from western Plymouth, dwells heavily on transit operating deficits here and around the country. "We all agree they lose money!" she argued. "So why do we want this?"
I'll tell you why: Because the alternative, building more roads for folks living outside the beltway, is even more of a money loser. User fees now pay less than half of roadway costs nationwide, pushing taxpayer subsidies far beyond those for transit and all other transport modes combined. And return on investment for roadway expansion is at historic negative levels.
In fact, increasing road spending at the expense of transit, bicycling and walking infrastructure would be a real noose, choking not only taxpayers' wallets but also their lungs and the region's traffic with more induced driving.
Like any good autocentrist, Dillon doesn't mention any of this, probably on the assumption that driving private cars is the American way. She does throw in a halfhearted plug for bus rapid transit (BRT) as an affordable alternative to rail, which she claims dominates the Metropolitan Council transit plan.
That's a howler right there. The Met Council has a couple of future light rail lines on the drawing board, but also a dozen highway and arterial BRT routes. The latter have no identified funding, and are a main focus of transit tax hike proposals. Dillon criticizes those initiatives as regressive, meaning they would place the most financial burden on those with the lowest incomes. True enough, although tax credit provisions she ignores could ease the onus.
And, if people really prefer progressive transit taxation, let's take it from a levy on the highest incomes. I won't hold my breath waiting for conservatives to endorse that idea. Tea-infused conservatives who really want BRT should support a way to pay for it.
Photo credit: Joey Rozier, creative commons
Spring seems finally to have come to Minnesota, and that means more motorcyles on the roads. If the recent past is any guide, it also means more motocyclists maimed and killed.
There were 53 motorcycle fatalities last year in the helmet-law-free Gopher State, the most since 2008. The Department of Public Safety hasn't yet released full 2012 statistics, but in 2011 fewer than two-fifths of the 42 killed and 1,248 injured were wearing helmets. Three-fifths of the crashes involved only a single motorcycle. And the chances of a motorcycle crash being deadly are six times greater than for other motor vehicles.
An uptrend in Minnesota motorcycle casualties is practically assured as long as helmets aren't required for those 18 and older, ridership continues to grow and the economy keeps recovering. DPS says the state has 237,000 registered motorcycles and 405,000 licensed operators, both all-time highs.
The trend is nationwide as well, with a 9 percent increase in motorcyle deaths last year across the United States.
"If the economy continues to improve and gasoline prices remain high, then motorcycle registrations, travel and fatalities will continue to rise unless active measures are taken," said James Hedlund of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "The most effective strategy by far is to enact a universal helmet use law in the 31 states that lack them."
Good luck with that. Minnesota's 1968 helmet law was repealed for adults in 1977 and there's been little sign of political will to take on the hair-in-the-wind bikers lobby since then, despite more than 1,600 fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries. In fact, more states are repealing helmet laws than enacting them. Michigan, for example, repealed its law last year, resulting in 16 needless deaths, according to a University of Michigan study. Helmet use by riders in Michigan crashes dropped from near-universal (98 percent) to less than three-quarters.
If we can't require bikers to protect their heads, at least we can offer them instruction to avoid plastering themselves on the pavement. The Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center conducts courses from April through October at 30 campuses around the state. For a complete course listing and registration visit dps.mn.gov.
At Minnesota 2020, we still think a universal helmet law would be good public safety policy at the cost of a slight inconvenience to riders. If that can't be achieved, training is the next best approach. "Riders must shoulder the responsibility for protecting themselves," said Bill Shaffer of the MMSC, a division of DPS, "and the first step is to take a rider training course."
On average in the United States, at any given moment roughly 660,000 drivers are paying attention to mobile electronic devices instead of the road ahead, according to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's food for thought as Distracted Driving Awareness Month ends.
"Distracted driving is a serious and deadly epidemic on America's roadways," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Powering down your cell phone when you're behind the wheel can save lives -- maybe even your own."
LaHood, who has announced his retirement from the Obama Cabinet, has been a leading voice in the fight against multitasking in the driver's seat. His passion for this issue, demonstrated on his department's comprehensive website, will be missed.
The latest NHTSA statistics show more than 3,300 people killed and 387,000 injured during 2011 in crashes involving driver distraction. Mobile devices weren't the cause of distraction in all those cases -- eating, personal grooming, radio fiddling, dealing with children and just plain daydreaming, among other things, also can wreak havoc -- but three out of four U.S. motorists support tough laws against phoning or texting while driving. That solid majority even includes people who admit to answering their cell phones behind the wheel.
Minnesota was among the first of 39 states to outlaw texting while driving. It's not among the 10 states that ban all mobile device use while operating a vehicle. Some U.S. jurisdictions have banned hand-held operation for motorists, but a new study shows little or no safety advantage for hands-free devices.
The Texas Transportation Institute tested 43 drivers in successive 10-minute segments at 30 m.p.h. First they did not text at all, then they texted manually, then with voice-to-text apps on IPhones and Androids. Researchers found that drivers' reactions took twice as long when texting than when not, no matter which method was used. Manual texting actually was less attention-consuming than the hands-free varieties.
"That is not surprising at all," John Ulczycki of the National Safety Council told USA TODAY. "First, the technology is not yet perfected. Messages often come out garbled, which can take even more time. And second ... they're still taking their mental concentration off the road."
This month, Minnesota state troopers boarded school buses and big trucks to catch texting drivers in the metro area from high vantage points. The one-day crackdown also involved 400 other law enforcement agencies trying to change behavior and save lives. "Nobody's last words should be LOL or OMG," Donna Berger of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety told the Star Tribune.
Like seat-belt laws, mobile device bans for drivers are difficult to enforce. But an overwhelming majority of Minnesota drivers now buckle up, which suggests a culture change. Maybe we can hope for a similar shift of habits when it comes to drivers' mobile devices.
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