The Legislature has a long to-do list on transportation

With limited resources, they’ll have to prioritize

By: - February 24, 2021 6:01 am

Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, talks with Wesley Holden, a Coon Rapids resident, who is walking on the roadway due to a lack of sidewalk on his way to the Walmart across the street. The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently conducted a study and recommended interim bicycle and pedestrian improvements. A second phase of the study still needs funding. Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Every morning, Linda Hale crosses University Avenue just outside of Northtown Mall in Blaine to get to work at the local Burger King. She sees people zooming by on what the Minnesota Department of Transportation calls a rural road. She knows of two people who were hit and killed there. 

“I wish they would slow down the traffic,” Hale recently told Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, as the two met to talk about the danger.

MnDOT has already completed a number of improvements to lighting, signals and crosswalks on the road — based on a study Koegel requested. There’s still more work to be done to make University Avenue safer, and Koegel, who serves as vice chair of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, aims to work with her colleagues to make it happen. 

But traffic safety isn’t the only transportation issue vying for the Legislature’s attention this year. They’ll also have to address the ravenous maintenance needs of one of the nation’s largest networks of roadways; Metro Transit’s beleaguered financial and safety situation; and expanding bicycle, pedestrian, transit and commuter rail access in greater Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget for MnDOT alone calls for $8 billion in spending, a 7% increase from the last biennium.

But a sizable budget deficit and desire among some Senate Republicans to keep any infrastructure packages on the smaller side will force lawmakers to prioritize what gets paid for. 

Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, said lawmakers need a fuller picture of how much money they have before they can really get to work.  

Traffic safety 

Driving, biking and walking fatalities combined have increased throughout the state, with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reporting 397 crash fatalities for 2020 so far, compared to 364 in 2019. 

That has made road safety a key issue for some state lawmakers. 

The Legislature may allow cities to impose 20-mile-per-hour speed limits on roads they do not own that go through a school zone, and they may entertain Walz’s recommendation to allow horses and buggies on the shoulders of state roads. 

Also up for consideration: online drivers’ ed courses and lessons for K-8 students that will seek to cut down on distracted walking and biking from cell phone use. 

Both chambers also want to make school buses safer, with the House wanting seat belts, and the Senate wanting stop signs attached to longer arms to avert incidents like the hit-and-run in Edina last year. 

They will once again debate legislation to allow undocumented immigrants access to drivers’ licenses

The last biennium, the state added research into autonomous vehicles and sustainable ways of clearing ice and snow to transportation initiatives it funded, and this year Gov. Tim Walz wants to add to the state’s collection of electric vehicle chargers and ensure our transportation system can withstand climate change impacts. 

The House transportation committee also wants to improve biking, walking and transit as part of MnDOT’s rebuilding of I-94 through St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, which was cleaved in two by the highway project in the 1950s. 

It’s a big laundry list at the Legislature, but don’t the pandemic has shifted the Legislature’s priorities, both on the policy and the money side.

MnDOT has three constitutionally dedicated sources of funding that mostly pays for building and maintaining the state’s highways and the roads that connect to it. 

The Republican-controlled Senate, which killed a Walz gas tax proposal in 2019, pledges to fight DFL proposals to raise money for transportation, including increasing the gas tax, taxing Uber and Lyft rides like Massachusetts did in 2016, and taxing luxury vehicles.

But Republicans may be on board with increasing the motorcycle licensing fee, implementing either a hike in the flat surcharge or mileage fee pilot program for electric vehicle owners, and increasing the Metro sales tax to fund biking, transit and walking. 

“[Sales taxes] seem to be the generally accepted way and how it is being done throughout the nation,” said Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota Executive Director Dorian Grilley, pointing to Denver’s transit funding scheme as an example. 

Bus infrastructure 

Metro Transit, which receives less constitutionally dedicated funding than MnDOT, faces an $80 million shortfall despite repeated federal infusions of COVID-19 money.* 

After doing so last biennium, the Legislature plans to separate Metro Transit funding from Metro Mobility, which shuttles the elderly and mobility impaired, because increasing demand is eating up most of the money that would otherwise go to Metro Transit’s regular services. 

The Legislature may also allow Minneapolis to use some money designated for streetcars to pay for expanding Metro Transit’s bus rapid transit network, which uses specially-painted buses that make fewer stops and are popular with policymakers and the public. Two routes currently operate, one on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, the other on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis. The Legislature funded two more lines last year and may fund two more this year. 

A Metro Transit Police officer patrols a Blue Line train at 38th Street on January 18, 2021. Some lawmakers want to allow Metro Transit to hire non-sworn workers to enforce fare payment, allowing sworn officers to focus on more serious offenses. Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Aside from funding, some familiar Metro Transit legislation being reintroduced this session may stall again. This includes prioritizing the least polluting buses to communities with poor air quality and joining agencies across the nation that have decriminalized fare evasion, allowing their stretched police force to focus on more serious safety issues. (Disclosure: I testified in favor of a similar fare evasion decriminalization bill on my own behalf in February 2020.)

The Legislature is considering developing four different Uber/Lyft-like transportation programs to help people who live in areas underserved by transit. And for Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare recipients who already take transit to their appointments, Walz wants to give them free monthly transit passes

Commuter and Light Rail 

Also being considered: enhancing transit access in greater Minnesota, including two proposals to expand passenger rail. Even though rail ridership was decimated by the pandemic, Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, plans to introduce a bill to fund interim track and switch improvements to eventually allow an extension to St. Cloud. The state last year funded and completed a study

And after MnDOT got $3 million in bonds to repair a rail bridge in Duluth for future passenger rail service to the Twin Cities, Walz proposes to bond $10 million in his recently-announced public works package to match federal funds for track and switch improvements in Winona and La Crescent for a second passenger train operating between St. Paul and Chicago

DFL legislators also want money to implement the State Rail Plan, which proposes to connect the Twin Cities to communities like Mankato, Rochester, Eau Claire, Sioux Falls, and Albert Lea by rail.

*This story has been corrected. A previous version incorrectly described constitutional provisions around transit. 

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.