Minnesota Needs A Climate Champion

Fund clean transportation

Grade: F

Transportation is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions. While electrification of cars is critical, it is not a silver bullet. There’s no data to support the idea that we can address climate pollution in transportation through electrification alone. Instead we must redesign our transportation systems to provide alternatives so people don’t have to drive everywhere for everything. That means real investments in transit, walking and biking as well as land-use reforms to allow more housing near transit lines and closer to job centers. Such investments and policies are proven to have a huge return on investment for access to jobs, public health, public safety, racial and economic equity, economic competitiveness, housing affordability and ability to retain young workers in Minnesota. 

If we are serious about climate, reducing Vehicles Miles Traveled (VMT) is not optional. Even the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association has acknowledged in an August 2019 Star Tribune column that the decrease in pollution from individual vehicles over 25 years has been overwhelmed by a doubling in cumulative VMT.

It’s not just that we have failed to build alternatives to driving.  We also have forced people to drive longer distances. The dramatic increase in VMT, particularly in the metro area, is a direct product of our outdated land-use policies, which promote metropolitan sprawl. Sprawl also destroys farmland and natural spaces that capture carbon naturally. Our current pattern of sprawl is not the product of natural market forces but rather government policies that make providing dense housing along transit corridors illegal, despite obvious demand. 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) and the Metropolitan Council, both agencies that answer to Gov. Walz, must lead the way for all public agencies at all levels to reduce VMT by modernizing land-use policy and finally providing real alternatives for getting around. There is no car trip better for the climate than the trip not taken.

What Governor Walz has done:

  • Abandoned new transit funding: We have seen an unfortunate collapse in gubernatorial leadership on transit. That’s apparent in a declining willingness to raise revenue for transit in the metro area, where VMT has increased dramatically and where alternatives are most economical.
    • Four years ago, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a half-cent metro sales tax. While not sufficient on its own, this serious proposal would have begun the build-out of a substantial network of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines.
    • Two years ago, Gov. Walz proposed a metro sales tax of a mere eighth of a penny — a 75% reduction from his predecessor and not nearly enough to build the Met Council’s own proposed BRT network.
    • Gov. Walz’s 2021 budget proposal includes no ongoing dollars for transit expansion. 
  • Cannibalized existing transit funds: Instead of raising new revenue for his own agency, and with long-term deficits looming in transit operating funds, the Walz administration is seeking to raid existing transit revenues raised by metro counties. (See Article 3 of HF 1027/SF 957, the Governor’s Recommended Budget for Transportation.) But these dollars are already programmed into the counties’ transit expansion plans, so the change would  slow needed projects. 
  • Took small steps forward on VMT: To their credit, MNDOT leaders recently adopted a goal to reduce VMT, provisionally adopting 20% as a VMT reduction goal before 2050. While not fast enough, this could be consequential for the climate if policy and funding reforms are made to meet this goal.

What Governor Walz should do:

  • Support a funding package that would allow for a 10-year buildout of 21 BRT lines in the metro area and increased service frequency across the whole transit system, as well as sidewalks to transit stops and commercial corridors and bike paths and trails. This could be achieved through dedicated and stable funding for transit, bicycling and walking with a 1-cent metro sales tax increase (with 10% dedicated set-aside for bike/walk infrastructure).
  • Support $10 million a year in new funding for Greater Minnesota transit and$15 million a year in new funding for Greater Minnesota bicycling and pedestrian access. 
  • Oppose subsidies for driving that come at the expense of K-12 education, higher education, nursing homes and health care that rely on general state revenue. Conservatives used to claim that “roads paid for themselves” through the gas tax and user fees. This was never true, but in the past decade they have shifted to seeking greater and greater subsidies from the General Fund. Whenever we use General Fund dollars to pay for roads, that’s money stolen from essential services that don’t have dedicated funds, as transportation does. 
  • Support strong VMT reduction goals. This should include “Fix it First” policies that protect property taxpayers by having roads actually “pay for themselves” through gas taxes and user fees. We should be both fiscally responsible and environmentally responsible by investing limited dollars in rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, not adding new lanes in the metro area, where BRT is a viable option. 
  • Recognize that transportation needs in the metro and Greater Minnesota are different. To meet a statewide 20% VMT goal, the metro area must do significantly more than 20% because it’s not reasonable or fair to expect rural communities with an agricultural economy to dramatically reduce VMT. When it comes to VMT, the metro area is where we find both the problem and the solution. It is the metro area where VMT has been increasing the most. The metro area is also where we can most cost-effectively provide a solution by building out a network of BRT lines. In metro areas in particular, adding new highway lanes induces new traffic demand. That wastes tax dollars because you cannot build your way out of congestion. 
    • Support land use reforms as described above to protect farmland and natural spaces from metropolitan sprawl. 
  • Get started immediately by supporting the House Omnibus Transportation Funding Bill HF 1668, which incorporates the Sustainable Transportation Act, both authored by Rep. Frank Hornstein.

More benefits for all Minnesotans:

The status quo, which is bad for the climate, is also bad for equity, job growth, public safety, housing affordability, public health, economic competitiveness and fiscal responsibility.

  • Access: Our current transportation and land use policies are biased in favor of people who; 1) can afford to drive automobiles over those who cannot afford or are unable to drive cars; and own single-family homes over people who rent or prefer multi-unit housing. These policies have discriminatory effects on lower-income people, people of color, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
  • Job growth: Dollar for dollar, repairing and rebuilding existing infrastructure puts more people to work than expanding new lanes. 
  • Public safety: Minnesota averages 500 fatal and severe crashes on its streets and highways each year. Pedestrians of color are more likely to be killed than whites. 
  • Housing affordability: The absence of mobility choices is a major driver of inequality and the unaffordability of housing. While the direct cost of housing is often cited, a more complete picture of affordability challenges – and opportunities – emerges when you measure housing and transportation costs together. The average family can save approximately $8,000 a year if they can reduce the number of cars in their household from 2 to 1 or from 1 to 0. 
  • Public health: Reliance on highways disproportionately exposes people of color to air pollution with significant downstream effects on both health and health care costs.