Propping up Air Travel, Dissing Transit

Airlines and their travelers complain about the taxes they pay to fly, even though a new labor union study shows the carriers get $1 billion a year in state and local tax breaks on their aviation fuel purchases. They also benefit from a growing array non-user financing schemes that keep public airports in operation.

The latest of these is the fracking rights sold off by Allegheny County in Pennsylvania to drill under the runways of Pittsburgh International Airport. There's enough natural gas down there to run the entire state for a year and a half, according to the New York Times. It's also enough to generate nearly $500 million in royalties over two decades for the airport, which found itself severely overbuilt and underfunded in the wake of 9/11, the loss of its U.S. Airways hub and the Great Recession. 

While Pittsburgh International opened in 1992 with facilities for 30 million passengers a year, it now handles just 8 million and devotes 42 percent of its $90 million annual budget to debt service. Gas royalties are expected to run about $20 million a year, allowing the airport to cut rising fees charged the remaining airlines in hopes of luring back some of the 300 daily flights that have disappeared since its peak year of 600 in 1997.

PIT isn't the only airport making out like Jed Clampett with a fossil fuel windfall. Dallas-Fort Worth International gets $8 million a year from the 100 gas wells on its property and Denver International collects $6.2 million annually from 76 gas and oil wells, some of them operating before the airport was built. The payments are very small parts of those airports' revenues, however.

"San Francisco installed solar panels and generates energy," reports WESA, Pittsburgh's NPR station. "The largest blueberry producer in Georgia is at an airport. And some airports have explored water or grazing rights."

Airports and air travel consume mass quantities of resources; PIT alone covers 9,000 acres, more than 14 square miles. It's fine to put some of that vast capital to other productive uses, although no law says the public profit has to benefit airlines and air travelers. The airline industry also generates huge externalities in the forms of noise pollution and climate-unfriendly greenhouse gases, most of which it doesn't pay for. 

Compare this now with the least resource- and externality-intensive of all our motorized means of mobility: public transit. No transit system has ever made a killing off fracking rights under the tracks. So the next time you hear anyone who flies or drives complain about subsidies for buses and light rail, take it with a giant grain of salt. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Air Travel 

A New Take on “Food for Fuel”

Usually when you hear the phrase “food for fuel,” it is used in reference to processing corn, sugar cane, and other staples into biofuel such as ethanol and biodisel. But there is a new situation developing that gives fresh spin on this phrase: displacing food for shale oil.

There is no question that the shale gas and oil boom has been a boon for the United States. A study out of Purdue University estimates that, without the shale revolution, U.S. GDP for the years 2008-2035 would be 3.5% lower. Additionally, shale oil has helped moderate the volatility of the global oil market and lowered our energy import dependence, while the growth in natural gas production has driven down prices, leading to a shift away from dirtier coal in favor of increased natural gas capacity

In states rich with shale oil and gas, the benefits of developing these resources have been the most tangible. Just across the border in North Dakota, development of the Bakken oil fields are largely credited with an 11 percent growth in the state’s GDP from 2011-2012, soaring real estate prices, and the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, 2.8 percent.

These figures make it seem like the economic impact of the shale revolution has been good for all, directly or indirectly from trickle down effects.

Perhaps not.

More reports are surfacing that, to the contrary, shale oil is actually crowding out other important commodities (and personal travel) by congesting rail lines and displacing shipments of coal and grain. Rail currently carries around 11 percent of U.S. oil, a figure that is expected to continue to increase through the rest of 2014. As of last week, BNSF, the largest regional railway, had over 1,000 rail cars set to deliver grain and other goods waiting to be shipped. According to a study out of North Dakota State University, these delays could cost North Dakota farmers $67 million over the winter months, and another $95 million if they are unable to move any remaining inventory after that.

As my colleague Conrad pointed out in a blog post earlier this month, farmers here at home are facing the same headache. A study from the University of Minnesota estimates that corn and soy growers lost over $70 million nearly $19 million, respectively, between March and May due to rail delays. Local businesses are taking a hit as well: General Mills reported last March that it had lost around 2 months’ worth of production; Cargill reported lower earnings due to higher rail transport costs.

Rail companies are responding to the overload of rail freight, greatly increasing spending on capital assets and boosting their payrolls. Despite this, backlogs of rail shipments are likely to persist as oil production ramps up. One solution, of course, could be more pipelines. But pipeline projects, even those with approval or that are close to gaining approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Comission, are still years away from operation. In the meantime, state legislatures and likely, the Federal Government, will need to examine options for balanced growth that doesn’t bolster one commodity at the expense of others.

As a nation, we have an insatiable hunger for oil and gas to power that economy. But displacing food with fuel should be an unacceptable tradeoff.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Business Growth  Energy  Environment 

Transit Leadership in St. Cloud

St. Cloud's Metro Bus is racking up firsts this year—first Minnesota transit system primarily fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG), first in the state with a mobility training center for riders and now the first in Minnesota to be named national urban transportation system of the year.

The award, presented by the Community Transportation Association of America at its national conference in St. Paul, honors Metro Bus innovation, creativity and responsiveness to its community. The system provides 2.4 million annual rides in St. Cloud and the surrounding cities of Sartell, Sauk Rapids and Waite Park.

In May, Metro Bus replaced 23 of its fleet of 67 regular route and dial-a-ride vehicles with new buses powered by CNG and built right at home by New Flyer in St. Cloud. The cutting-edge fuel isn't only cheaper—it's expected to shave $3 million off the cost of diesel over 10 years—it's clean-burning and quieter-running, too. The new buses replaced old ones due for retirement and the CNG fueling system was built along with other needed projects at the Metro Bus garage. As the rest of the fleet is retired, it will be replaced with CNG-fueled vehicles.

The training center opened in July in a remodeled former bank building in downtown St. Cloud. Its Travel Training program has partnered with dozens of community agencies to assess the travel needs and options of the elderly, the disabled and immigrants with limited English proficiency. In addition, "through this training agencies are able to maximize their transportation budgets by utilizing our fixed route services first, which is more economical than dial-a-ride, taxi service or other private transportation," Metro Bus staffers noted in the Minnesota Public Transit Association's In-Transit newsletter.

Many people think of public transit as only for big cities. That's not true at all, especially in Minnesota, which boasts a national model network of rural and small-city transit services. St. Cloud's Metro Bus shows us that such systems can match or outdo their metropolitan big brothers when it comes to innovation and community outreach.  

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Busing 

Varied Means to Close the Achievement Gap

As has been reported time and again, Minnesota’s achievement gap between white students and students of color is one of the highest in the nation. Data from 2013 “shows that districts and charter schools across the state are [relatively] on track to meet an aggressive statewide goal of closing gaps by 50 percent by 2017.” Despite improvements, 53 percent and 74 percent of Minnesota school districts were unable to meet their 2013 goals for improvement goals in reading and mathematics, respectively.

Former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak and the organization Generation Next have proposed three specific measures to attempt to combat the achievement gap from the top down, including comprehensive health screening by age 3, reading proficiency by third grade and enhanced mentoring and life planning for high schoolers. However, there are many programs across the country that can and should be utilized to ensure further success.

For example, many pieces of research focus on summer break, when achievement gaps widen the fastest. The Practice Makes Perfect program in New York City focuses on students of all ages and encourages students to teach each other the information with assistance from educators.

The program has been widely successful with their first cohort of 22 students applying and being accepted to more than 120 elite colleges and universities. The strength of this program is that it combines educator expertise with innovative teaching practices. The Practice Makes Perfect program is just one instance of innovation in this field.

Which is necessary, because losing the achievement gap depends on innovative solutions that may include philanthropic endeavors, such as Generation Next, but also communal concern and engagement including parents, students, educators and administrators. To this point, Minnesota shows this is possible through the St. Paul Open World Learning Center, which has proven that innovative community-led investment does produce results for every student, no matter their race. Additionally, teacher-led schools in New Jersey have gleaned national attention with little critical understanding of their positive possibilities.

Where resources should be allocated and focused in this suite of programs is in the schools. Focusing on the actual school will change perspectives on what the public school can actually do for the student. It will empower our educators to be invested in every single Minnesota student and work towards equity.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Achievement Gap 

VIDEO: Education Beyond Test Scores

Minnesota 2020 released a new report yesterday at the Minnesota State Fair. The report, Valuing the Whole Child: Education Beyond Test Scores, describes the tough choices districts have been forced to make in a climate of budget scarcity. Statewide, it shows reductions in enrichment curriculum and support services, to make room in school budgets for increased emphasis on standardized test subjects.


Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Funding  Student Assessment 

Three cheers for Title IX, Mo’ne, Maya, Lindsay and all the Lynx

The Little League World Series just ended and the whole world now knows about Philadelphia's talented Mo'ne Davis. The second round of the WNBA gets started Friday night and our Minnesota Lynx will be trying for a third national title in four years.

There was a fall season-like chill in the air early today, a reminder that volleyball and hockey are just around the corner. That begs a question about how great the University of Minnesota womens' Gophers will be this coming school year, with returning players from the U.S. Olympic Team, or will the previously dominate University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs be back as the national power. Oh, and there is always a question at the start of new school years about how great Concordia University's women's volleyball team will be in the coming year.

High school, college, the pros; we almost take it for granted that great sports teams and players will entertain us in the coming year and in years to follow. In Minnesota, at least, we can also count on women's teams as being among the most accomplished athletic groups ever assembled.

Give the credit where it belong: Title IX of the national education amendments of 1972. Public policy decreed there would be gender equity in education, and it is being realized. Reviews of educational attainment show women are largely outperforming men these days, and Minnesota sports fans know that women's teams locally have have dominated their sports arenas in recent years beyond the wildest dreams of their male counterparts.

This is recalled here because Deb Balzer just reminded us Tuesday was Women's Equality Day. We take it for granted on sports days. We just don't pay heed on pay days.

All this is relevant when we think of public policy aimed at correcting imbalances and injustices in education, workplaces and sports. The key ingredient of policies such as Title IX is to create opportunities.

The extraordinary runs on titles by the Lynx, the four national titles and a 62-game winning streak over three years by the Gophers, and the five national titles by UMD's hockey women are a combination of being given opportunity and seizing it.

You can't even think about women's sports achievements in Minnesota without including the seven consecutive national Division II volleyball titles for Corcordia University's Golden Bears, a fete not likely ever duplicated and won't be if Concordia adds an eighth title this fall.

All of these successes represent personal and team accomplishments. All started by being granted opportunity to succeed.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Gender Inequalities  Minnesota Sports 

The Invasion of the “Math People”

A tragically common refrain for too many people in our society is, “I’m not a math person.” Often, the real subtext is, “I did not enjoy and/or do well in math class.” This creates an unfortunate feedback loop where most of the people who go on to teach math and write math textbooks are the people who did enjoy and do well in math class, limiting the likelihood of change.

Then again, even when there has been real effort put into changing how math is taught, it’s either been done badly or has been stymied by the way our school system treats teachers. The adapted excerpt from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher that ran in the New York Times details the backlash against the “new math” of the 1960’s and the “new new math” of the 1980’s, as well as Japan’s successful incorporation of different approaches to teaching math. Those approaches were developed in the U.S., but teachers were never supported adequately when adopting them (and, unlike Japanese teachers, don’t have enough time to research, develop, or incorporate best practices).

The Japanese approach replaces the standard lesson format —teacher introduces new material, teacher leads the class in guided practice, students practice independently—with a more student-centered approach. The teacher poses a problem, students work on it independently, then in groups, and then as a whole class with the teacher facilitating and ensuring students explore multiple routes to right answers. (This, by the way, means that Rand Paul’s dream calculus teacher couldn’t actually teach everyone in the country.)

As explored by the National Center on Education and the Economy, another source of, “I’m not a math person,” is the accelerating pace of math instruction that pushes students faster and faster on a path to calculus. This winds up neglecting important areas that are more important to many adults’ lives, such as statistics or key geometric and measurement techniques. It also means that students don’t have as much of an opportunity to master the middle school calculation techniques and “Algebra 1.25” skills that they need for success in most fields.

Especially with the spread of the Common Core math standards, we need to do more to support teachers in reevaluating which math skills need the most emphasis, how they should be mastered, and how best to teach students. A country of “math people” is possible, but it will some systemic changes and more trust and aid for teachers.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum 

Making Nice at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

The Minnesota State Fair is on and hundreds of rural kids, especially 4-Hers and FFAers, have come to town to make nice with city folks. This used to be a time when rural and urban would meet and sometimes study cultural differences.

Modern media, modern education, and general mobility have wiped out most cultural endowments that separated rural from urban in past decades Science has greatly changed lifestyles out on the farms as well. But humor, even when saluting the present, still reaches back to an earlier time in rural America.

So it is that as the Minnesota State Fair winds down on its 12-day annual run, agricultural-oriented email sites are passing around the following letter home from a farm kid in Marine Corps basic training.

“Dear Ma and Pa,

“I am well. Hope you are. Tell Brother Walt and Brother Elmer the Marine Corps beats working for old man Minch by a mile. Tell them to join up quick before all of the places are filled.

“I was restless at first because you get to stay in bed till nearly 6 a.m. But I am getting to I like sleeping late. No hogs to slop, feed to pitch, wood to split, fire to lay. Practically nothing.

“Men got to shave but it is not so bad; there's warm water. Breakfast is strong on trimmings like fruit juice, cereal, eggs, bacon, etc., but kind of weak on chops, potatoes, ham, steak, fried eggplant, pie and other regular food. Tell Walt and Elmer you can always sit by the two city boys that live on coffee. Their food, plus yours, holds you until noon when you get fed again.

“We go on "route marches," which the platoon sergeant says are long walks to harden us. If he thinks so, it's not my place to tell him different. A "route march" is about as far as to our mailbox at home. Then the city guys get sore feet and we all ride back in trucks.

“We have what they call hand-to-hand combat training. You get to wrestle with them city boys. I have to be real careful though, they break easy. I'm about the best they got in this except for Tug Jordan from over in Silver Lake. I only beat him once. He joined up the same time as me, but I'm only 5'6" and 130 pounds and he's 6'8" and near 300 pounds dry.

“Be sure to tell Walt and Elmer to hurry and join before other fellers get onto this setup and come stampeding in.

“Your loving daughter,


Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Agriculture 

What State is Jeff Johnson Looking At?

“It is never a good thing to see jobs fleeing the state,” Jeff Johnson declared in a press release from earlier this summer. One can only wonder what state the conservative gubernatorial candidate is referring to, because it doesn’t sound like Minnesota.

Since Mark Dayton, the man Jeff Johnson wants to replace, came to office in January 2011, the total number of jobs in Minnesota have grown by 5.7 percent, significantly greater than the Midwestern average of 4.9 percent.* And how about Wisconsin, the home of conservative golden boy Scott Walker, the man that Johnson plans to emulate as the next governor of Minnesota? Wisconsin’s job growth rate is a disappointing 4.1 percent—as far below the Midwestern average as Minnesota is above it.

Approximately one year ago, Minnesota had officially regained all of the jobs lost during the Great Recession. Wisconsin, on the other hand, still hasn’t recovered all of the jobs it lost; in fact, as of July 2014, Wisconsin is still 25,000 jobs (0.9 percent) short of its pre-recession peak.

In fairness to the Badger State, it was hit much harder than Minnesota by the recession which officially ended in June 2009. Furthermore, not all of Wisconsin’s lackluster job growth can be blamed on Scott Walker, just as Mark Dayton cannot take credit for all of Minnesota’s above average job growth—although after over three years in office the policies pursued by both governors could be influencing the job trajectory to at least some extent. However, of two things we can be sure:

The conservative article of faith that tax increases are job killers and tax cuts are job producers is not borne out by the facts. Former state economist Tom Stinson has noted that Minnesota above average income growth over the last half century is in large part attributable to smart investments in education, infrastructure, and other public assets that improve Minnesota’s quality of life—investments paid for largely with tax dollars. Over the last two years, progressive state policymakers have restored a relatively small portion of cuts made to these investments over the last ten years.

By emulating the far right agenda of Scott Walker, Jeff Johnson would be pursuing policies that haven’t worked out very well in Wisconsin. For that matter, they haven’t worked that well in Minnesota either, as demonstrated by Minnesota’s disappointing economic performance during the Pawlenty years. If anything, conservative “solutions” to the twin problems of sluggish job growth and income inequality have only made matters worse.

*Employment numbers cited here are based on seasonally adjusted total non-farm employment from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Midwestern States 

Video: Health Care Workers Vote to Unionize

Homecare workers gathered at the State Fair this afternoon to announce the results of their union election. By a decisive vote, over 60% voted "yes" to form a union and join SEIU. Workers will now have the opportunity to join together and bargain collectively with the state for better working conditions, wages and benefits that will improve the quality of life for workers, and the quality of care patients receive.  

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Health Care Professionals  Union  Workers' Rights 

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