It's a reflection of our autocentric culture, I guess, that two of the seven hoary state statutes Gov. Mark Dayton highlighted for repeal in his proposed legislative "un-session" pertain to private motoring.
One of the laws on the chopping block regulates the size and color of automotive bug deflectors, another has prohibited driving in neutral since 1937. Some claim the latter is impossible anyway. Maybe it is in most of flatland Minnesota, but I've often coasted down a mountain on I-24 in eastern Tennessee, where I hope it's not illegal. Whatever, let's get the gummint off our backs as we enjoy bug-free, gearless motoring in Minnesota.
Another old law requires licensing of elevator operators (another kind of transportation). According to the governor, there are two of them left in Minnesota (where?), and they should be set free from regulatory clutches as well.
Dayton says these are just a few examples of the more than 1,000 "obsolete, redundant or incomprehensible statutes" he's targeted for extinction. The entire list must be somewhere, but I'm not looking it up, and I doubt that many legislators will, either. When the bill passes, it will be one of those sight-unseen pieces of legislation our elected representatives are so infamous for, but in this case no one will complain.
This is mostly harmless fun for bloggers like me and other journalists, not to mention a boost for the guv's regular-guy cred. But I worry that it reinforces public contempt for our government -- which, of course, is self-government and, as Churchill is supposed to have said, the worst form ever invented except for all the others that have been tried.
On the other hand, if all these old laws weren't being enforced anyway, they belong in a responsive state's dustbin of history. Still, let's not confuse this sideshow with government's ongoing duty to attend to what really matters: education, health care, economic development and transportation.
Here, you'll find our weekly round-up of links from the Minnesota 2020 staff and writers. Enjoy and have a great weekend!
Leading for a Greater Minnesota (Organizing Apprenticeship Project) -- On Wednesday, Organizing Apprenticeship Project led a rally for equity at the capitol, presenting the legislature with an inspiring vision for what they might do if they made racial justice the framework for decision making.
The Dalai Lama’s Ski Trip: What I learned in the slush with His Holiness. (Slate) -- This is just a fun and uplifting read!
From Grid Waste to Good Taste (Ensia) -- Environmental scientist and writer Justin Lichter offers an exciting prospect in the U's Ensia online mag for turning power grid electrical waste into a green house farming resource, and the potential is great.
Hennepin County among best in nation at closing housing-affordability gap (MinnPost) -- "Good news" is always a bit of a stretch in housing equity, but Hennepin County's progress at increasing its stock of affordable housing relative to the number of families in need is, indeed, good. With that said, it's nowhere near enough; there are only 42 affordable units for every 100 families in the greatest need, the fifth best ratio in the country.
Day 2: A World Class Transportation System (Strong Towns) -- I've long admired Minnesota conservative Charles Marohn's deep critiques of post-WWII U.S. transportation and development policies. This week his Strong Towns blog is featuring a five-part series conceived mainly as a response to the MOVE MN transportation funding campaign. He doesn't like it; we think it has some merit. That said, his second installment offers great insight about the inherent weakness of our system of paying for roads and bridges.
Energy Sec. Predicts 30-40 Pct. Renewable Energy By 2030 (Here & Now) -- Cool interview with Secretary Moniz about the future of energy, particularly nuclear and renewables.
A Letter From Ray Jasper, Who Is About to Be Executed (Gawker) -- An amazing article on race, the prison industrial complex and death row from the graceful perspective of an inmate on death row.
The Indian sanitary pad revolutionary (BBC) -- The cost of sanitary napkins is prohibitive for many rural women in India, leading to menstrual practices that are not always effective or hygienic. This article tells the story of an Indian man who overcame many obstacles to invent a machine that makes affordable sanitary pads. The machines have now spread across rural India, and may soon expand to more countries.
If you've ever doubted the critical importance of transportation to the broad economy, consider the havoc being wrought on many other enterprises at least partly by the sudden glut of crude oil shipments by rail from North Dakota's booming Bakken Formation.
We've already focused on the dangers of deadly explosions and fires and the disruption to Amtrak passenger train schedules posed by these rolling pipelines. Now reports are filtering in of other commodities and commuters being shoved off the tracks to make way for a virtual river of black gold. Railroads say bad winter weather is causing the problems, but frustrated shippers of Canadian oats and Minnesota sugar say their products are being sidetracked because moving the oil is more lucrative.
The oats controversy, reported in the Wall Street Journal, tickled the fancy of Minnesota media outlets because of a threat to Twin Cities-based General Mills' production of Cheerios. Despite a bumper crop of the hearty grain on the Canadian prairies, its U.S. futures contracts soared 42 percent beginning Jan. 1 because of the shipping backlog.
In classical economic terms, no matter how great the supply, if it can't reach its markets it does nothing to ease demand or prices. At the grocery store, expect prices of cereal, cookies and granola bars to rise 1.5 percent, the Journal warned.
In late January, the Associated Press reported that rail shipping delays forced American Crystal Sugar to cut production at a plant in East Grand Forks, Minn., and two in North Dakota. The plants were running out of space to store their sweetness.
Meanwhile, Metro Transit's Northstar commuter rail service from Big Lake to Minneapolis saw its stellar 96 percent on-time record shredded by freight train congestion beginning in January. One scheduled morning run on the tracks it leases from BNSF Railway was scratched recently, the four others delayed up to two hours. "Commuters could wait for their trains or board replacement buses," the Star Tribune reported.
Again, the railroad blamed the weather. But, as American Crystal CEO Dave Berg noted, "winter weather is not a new phenomenon" in these parts.
What is new is dozens of 100-tanker car unit trains carrying crude oil through Minnesota every week, gumming up the works. We don't have to suffer a blazing train wreck catastrophe to feel adverse effects. But as long as our economy keeps running on oil, we'll be beholden to it in surprising ways that will keep emerging.
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Since MN2020 started focusing on dangerous rail shipments of North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota in mid-January, a lot of other people have taken notice. Among them are the railroads, which agreed under pressure from federal regulators to new safety measures such as slowing most oil trains through urban areas to 40 m.p.h., stepped-up track inspections and braking technology to avert pileups when trains derail.
That's a start, expected to be fully implemented by July. But, as the St. Cloud Times editorialized, "Spilling 5 million gallons of crude oil the past five years is bad enough for the environment. But when such spills also catch fire and cause deadly explosions, it's clear more must be done to protect everyone -- and everything -- living near these increasingly busy rail lines."
Like the Twin Cities, St. Cloud is seeing multiple 100-car unit trains of Bakken crude pass through every day of the year. Other Minnesota cities affected include Brainerd, Duluth, Elk River, Marshall, Red Wing, Willmar and Winona.
Recently, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the nation's infrastructure is inadequate for the dramatic increase in domestic crude oil now being transported. "The Bakken shale has gone from close to nothing to a million barrels a day in a very short time," he told Capital New York. "What we probably need is more of a pipeline infrastructure and to diminish the need for rail transport over time."
That prescription is sure to meet opposition from the progressive wing, but it's clear that a lack of pipelines isn't slowing the pumping and combustion of fossil fuel linked to climate change. That's a much broader problem than can be solved by fiddling with the ways we transport fuel. It may be short-sighted in the long run, but massive spills, fires and explosions along rail lines are a more imminent challenge with better prospects for solution.
Fortunately, both the public and private sectors are confronting the challenge with new urgency. Federal regulators, who knew the risks of oil shipments by rail more than two years ago, recently levied fines totaling $93,000 against three oil companies accused of mislabeling crude shipments as less volatile than they really were.
The wrong information can hamper efforts by emergency responders to fight fires or spills. Spot inspections of 18 crude samples taken from Bakken tanks and pipelines that feed oil trains found 11 of them mislabeled. Chillingly, Canadian inspectors found that the crude oil train that exploded in Quebec, killing 47, was mislabeled as less flammable when it was loaded in North Dakota. That's "why it ignited so quickly," the inspectors said.
BNSF Railway, a major transporter of Bakken crude through Minnesota, is buying 5,000 stronger tank cars, an unusual step for the rail industry, which usually pulls tankers owned by oil interests. It's a small step toward replacing a national fleet of 78,000 old tank cars that are extremely vulnerable to crude spills and fires.
In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton joined United Transportation Union officials in calling for tougher state oversight of oil shipments. One initiative could increase the number of state rail inspectors from the current one -- with responsibility for nearly 4,400 miles of track. Meanwhile, the UTU rail union accused the Canadian Pacific Railway, the other major oil shipper through Minnesota, of compromising safety by cutting jobs and costs as its profits soared fivefold in the fourth quarter.
The company denied the union's allegations and said it will cooperate with the governor on safety issues. CP should do more than that. So should the oil companies, government policymakers and everyone else involved in this risky business, before a real disaster close to home forces truly prompt action.
What fun for transit-bashing conservatives when a Green Line light-rail train on a test run in St. Paul ran off snow-clogged tracks last Wednesday shortly after President Obama, a few blocks away, extolled the line, which is set to launch passenger service in June.
According to the Pioneer Press: "President Obama comes to Minnesota, touts how great light rail is, and train goes off the tracks hours later," wrote a self-described Minneapolis conservative who goes by the Twitter handle Eye on Politics. "Can't make it up. ... Barack Obama's magic touch!"
All of this, of course, is utter baloney. The mishap, which caused no injuries or travel delays, occurred during testing designed to iron out problems like this before anyone gets on board. Indeed, in 10 years of Metro Transit Hiawatha light-rail service, such a derailment has happened exactly once.
Obama could be chided for saying that an auto trip between the Twin Cities downtowns might take two hours in a big snowstorm. I doubt it, but correct me if you've ever put up with that. Still, light rail offers a big advantage when the roads are slick, as they were on the last weekend of February.
"Across Minnesota, the State Patrol had responded to 964 crashes, more than 2,300 vehicles off the road, 1,082 stalled vehicles, 74 jackknifed semitrailer trucks and 4,414 calls for service from Thursday through Saturday afternoon," the Star Tribune reported.
Far be it from me to gloat over the misfortunes of thousands of my fellow drivers. But let's get real when it comes to rail transit's safety, reliability and efficiency compared with its sometimes dicey chief alternative, private motoring.
At MN2020, we've been skeptical but not dismissive of modern streetcar initiatives in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Real estate investment generally follows improvements in mobility and access along specific transportation corridors. You can have development oriented to either roads or transit, but the streetcar concept seems to put the cart before the horse -- development-oriented transit without a significant boost in mobility or access.
Maybe it can work here after all, and proponents love to point to the billions Portland's pioneering streetcar injected into the Oregon city's economy. That success, along with changes in federal transit funding rules, has even spawned a new lobby centered around the 10-year-old Community Streetcar Coalition.
Politico reports a boom on K Street in Washington, D.C., with 13 active lobbying contracts listing streetcars as an issue last year, up from none before 2006. D.C. and three other cities will open streetcar lines this year, and a dozen more are under construction in Charlotte, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Oklahoma City and elsewhere. The Twin Towns are among two dozen others planning streetcars.
"This is definitely a growth area," Jeff Boothe, a lobbyist who is executive director of the streetcar coalition, told Politico. "Cities see the streetcars as a way to organize and shape land use and economic development."
On the other hand, critics include not only familiar autocentric transit bashers, but also the Twin Cities' chief transit agency, the Metropolitan Council, urbanist scholars and even one of Minnesota's foremost streetcar historians.
The estimated startup cost in Minneapolis of $200 million "is a downpayment on years of increased operating expense and questionable reliability," he added. "Better to put the money to work improving bus service, or building a light rail line along the Midtown Greenway corridor." (BTW, light rail was just recommended for part of the east-west Greenway, which intersects the proposed north-south streetcar line on Nicollet Avenue, by a Met Council advisory panel.)
Diers' piece is worth a look not only for his thoughtful critique, but also for a lively comment string of pros and cons. MN2020's mind isn't totally made up on streetcars yet, but reading this could help you reach a verdict.
More than a decade ago, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota made a telling appeal to its suburban no-tax pledge signers: Don't vote for any new transportation revenue until after the 2002 redistricting. Then you'll have more clout to steer road money away from outstate folks.
Well, divisiveness, thy name is Taxpayers League, and even years later the Merry Fact Slayers branded fellow conservatives who supported Minnesota's first new transportation funding in 20 years as "tax bandits."
I'm reminded of this instructive history by news of another significant group of elected officials joining the Move MN campaign "to make transportation a top funding priority this legislative session." Joining the vast majority of Minnesota county boards that I reported on last week, plus dozens of mayors and city councils, are more than 300 rural township boards.
"Road work is what townships do, so we know that if you're not keeping up with maintenance, you're going backwards," Lenny Laures of Cascade Township in Olmsted County said in a news release. "When there isn't enough money to go around, townships find themselves with fewer resources for maintenance and infrastructure improvement."
Township supervisors signing on with Move MN extend from Aastad to Zumbrota, unincorporated areas of 78 counties in every corner of the state. These are not "tax-and-spend liberals"; they're public servants who know what good roads and bridges mean to their local economies. In fact, missing from the list are any townships in four Twin Cities metro counties, including Hennepin, which hasn't any. But farming townships in Carver, Dakota and Scott counties, reliably conservative areas, are in the mix.
With different cultures, economies and geographies, rural areas have different transportation needs than urban cores. The latter, generally saturated with roads, need more transit and nonmotorized alternatives. Greater Minnesota could use a few of those alternatives, too, but its most pressing need is for better motorways.
The recent explosion -- both literal and figurative -- of railroad shipments of crude oil from North Dakota has opened a new front in the long-running tension over which interests are served by our transportation system: people's or commerce's.
The two can't be neatly divided, of course, because the movement of goods benefits people. But it's interesting to note that as the former Great Northern rail line from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest becomes more clogged with shipments of petroleum, manufactured goods and agricultural products, it's Minnesota's only passenger trains that are being detoured and delayed.
According to an Amtrak service alert, its Empire Builder trains will have "significant delays along the route due to freight train interference" through at least the end of February. BNSF Railway, from which Amtrak leases track rights, has ordered westbound Empire Builder trains to detour from Fargo to Minot, N.D., missing stops at Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby. Amtrak is filling the gaps with bus service.
"We are working to reduce delays whenever possible and provide our passengers with more reliable service," Amtrak announced. But it's clear that freight takes precedence over human travelers.
How about the matchup between people and potentially dangerous tank cars full of volatile oil? Fred Millar, a Virginia rail safety consultant, told me the railroads have no desire to reroute these burgeoning shipments -- many made up of flimsy and obsolete "Pepsi cans on wheels" -- around heavily populated areas, including the Twin Cities. And government can't or won't make them do it, either.
In response, two Minneapolis legislators have proposed charging 0.01 cents per gallon of crude shipped in the state by pipeline, rail or truck to beef up disaster readiness. Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, chairmen of the Transportation Finance Committees, also called for tougher safety standards, new emergency response plans and readiness for spills if oil is shipped by tankers on Lake Superior.
At the suggested rate, each 30,000-gallon tank car would be assessed $3. It's reported that the entire program could raise up to $30 million a year, but even with today's booming oil traffic through Minnesota the railroads would pay well under $1 million. That's a rounding error for businesses that have been investing tens of billions in their infrastructure to meet the new demand.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has joined six other states, 10 ports and the BNSF in the Great Northern Corridor Coalition, a group representing freight interests from Chicago to Washington state. Its mission is to improve the corridor of rails and roads that carries 200 million tons of freight a year with regional cooperation, planning and shared project implementation.
MnDOT senior rail planner Dave Christianson said the corridor is "vital to communities," adding that "we rely on this multimodal transportation system to move U.S. products to global markets and deliver necessary commodities to our communities."
This is all well and good. It would be nicer, though, if the group also paid attention to the safety and convenience of the people in those communities who live along the corridor and travel it by rail.
Join Minnesota 2020 tomorrow for a broader Tuesday Talk discussion on the future of transporting oil through Minnesota.
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The Utah Transit Authority, a national leader in offering travel choices in a conservative state, is repeating a smart marketing ploy that won praise last year -- giving away thousands of weekly passes to lure more folks onto its light rail, commuter rail and bus services. Think of it as a loss leader.
Last summer the 2,500 freebies were used more than 20,000 times. The giveaway, called Ride Clear, was prompted by extreme heat that amped up smog in Salt Lake's mountain valleys, where they really care about air pollution. Compared with prvate motoring, full light rail trains reduce pollutants by 93 tons a year and greenhouse gases by 1,263 tons. Buses also save tons of emissions.
This year UTA, in partnership with a bank and a clean air organization, is expanding the program to 5,000 free passes in several waves. The first 1,000 went fast, officials reported, and now 2,500 more are on offer.
Ride Clear might be the most extensive free transit experiment in the United States in a long while, but it's small potatoes compared with the Estonian capital, Tallinn, which last year made all its transit permanently free for its residents. The Baltic city of 430,000, bigger than any in Minnesota, is known for innovation; it's the birthplace of Skype and online voting.
Local officials tout the move as a big success and it's popular with Tallinners, who overwhelmingly approved it in a referendum. Unbiased studies, however, show little gain in transit ridership except in a poor area of town and negligible impact on driving. Researchers from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology noted criticism of free transit as a "second-best pricing scheme" for discouraging auto use, after higher prices for fuel, parking or tolls.
Nonetheless, free transit has made good fiscal sense for Tallinn because Estonian local taxes are linked to residential registration. Visitors to the city still pay 1.6 euros ($2.18 at current exchange) to ride the transit system, while residents can buy a card for 2 euros that gives them unlimited rides. It also signs them up for city taxes.
Before, there were an estimated 40,000 unregistered Tallinn residents whose taxes went to other towns, but 10,000 people registered last year, nearly three times the number in 2012. They boosted city revenues by 10 million euros, 83 percent of the lost farebox receipts. Despite the shortfall, city officials remain committed to continued upgrades of the system, which they say are just as key to attracting riders as free passes.
The takeaway? Maybe permanent free transit can work in a forward-thinking former Soviet republic, but probably not here. To get more folks to try transit in Minnesota, we should follow Utah's example and advertise loss leaders.
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Dwight Eisenhower was shocked to learn that his namesake interstate highway system was being routed right through cities, tearing up and isolating established neighborhoods. Ike had envisioned the great public works project of the mid-20th century more as infrastructure for military preparedness than for super-sizing suburban sprawl.
Lately, some revolutionary urban thinkers have promoted ripping out city freeways, a radical step that has been adopted in a few places. That idea hasn't surfaced much in Minnesota yet, but streets.mn blogger Walker Angell has proposed a variant of the concept to head off congestion in downtown St. Paul.
Angell would actually make more use of the highways girding the city's core to distribute traffic to specific corners of downtown. He'd wall off four quadrants of the area divided by Robert and Seventh streets to keep most motor vehicles from crossing while allowing pedestrians, bicyclists, transit and emergency vehicles free passage.
Under his plan, "we have to take main roads around the city and enter nearest our destination," he wrote. "Instead of adding to congestion on 11 blocks through town, we've only done so on two or three. Our negative impact on people downtown is a quarter of what it was before. This will have an immediate and huge benefit in decreasing traffic and increasing livability. And without reducing access."
As Angell acknowledges, it also would be disruptive and risky. Commercial delivery routes could be greatly complicated. But it could enable traffic calming on most downtown streets, making them friendlier to foot-powered modes and maybe even allowing room for more curbside parking.
There may be more downsides, and benefits, than immediately come to mind, but this is the kind of creative thinking we'll need to redesign cities for the 21st century. Instead of closing just one downtown street to cars -- a la Nicollet Mall or Seventh Place -- why not try evening the imbalance between motorists and the rest of us on many streets?