Divided Legislature hits usual roadblocks on transportation deal

By: - April 29, 2022 6:30 am

An Evie carshare electric car is parked and plugged into an electric vehicle charging station at Chicago Avenue just north of Franklin Avenue. The Minnesota House wants to allocate $6.8 million to match 2021 Federal Infrastructure Law funds available to purchase and install EV chargers throughout the state. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

With the state flush with a nearly $9.3 billion surplus, the Legislature has lots of ideas — and cash — to address transportation issues.  

Whether any of those ideas will actually happen remains to be seen. Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators disagree on how best to address getting around, and the conflict is complicated by global factors like climate change, inflationary gas prices caused in part by the war in Ukraine, and a pandemic that has changed how we get around and where we work

But lawmakers have agreed on some things: Both chambers directed the legislative auditor to review the Metropolitan Council’s handling of the sputtering Southwest light rail project, which is now years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. 

And both chambers agree driving needs to be easier and safer, and that electric vehicle owners need to pay their fair share to maintain our roads. 

The DFL–controlled House voted to advance their $820 million vision on April 26, while the GOP-majority Senate plans to vote soon on their $1.2 billion transportation package

Southwest light rail construction snafu may hinder region’s transit priorities

Every legislator from both chambers, except for Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, voted to audit the Met Council’s management of the Southwest light rail project, which will extend the existing Green Line to St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie when it opens in 2027. Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law in March. 

A cyclist rides past the almost-complete 21st Street Station in Minneapolis, which will eventually serve the Southwest Light Rail project to extend today’s Green Line 14 miles to Eden Prairie. Completion of the line was recently again delayed. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

The project’s budget may balloon to $2.75 billion, primarily because of trouble building a tunnel through the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, which partly contributed to cracks at a nearby condominium complex converted from grain silos

Although lawmakers have fumed at the Met Council, they don’t know what to do about the project. Not finishing it would lead to a massive bill from the federal government, plus huge costs to unwind what’s already been completed.

Bills to transfer control of the project to the Minnesota Department of Transportation or to kill it entirely aren’t in either chamber’s final transportation package. Nor are any bills to elect the members of the Met Council — they are currently appointed by the governor — or abolish it altogether. 

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who has been a fierce critic of the Met Council, said in a March interview that there’s some momentum for the idea of electing the Met Council.

“I think the conditions are right. The governor has indicated he would sign (a) bill (to elect the Met Council) if it got to him, and enough people are frustrated,” Dibble said. He added, however, that this probably isn’t the year. “(But) if I were to count the votes, I’d say today, no, but we’re working on it.” 

The Senate has a measure to take away the Met Council’s transportation planning powers, as well another to ban the state from spending on rapid bus and light rail projects.

The House rejected an amendment offered by Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, to kill the Bottineau light rail project, which would extend light rail to Brooklyn Park by way of north Minneapolis, Robbinsdale and Crystal. 

The Met Council’s weak political hand may impede the agency’s effort to fund electric buses, transit signal priority, better shelters, rapid bus lines and discounted fares for the summer. The Senate wants to discontinue the oft-lambasted Northstar commuter rail service from Big Lake to Minneapolis, as the Met Council embarks on a yearlong study of how Northstar ridership was affected by the pandemic. Northstar ridership plunged more than 90% as the pandemic began and has yet to fully recover. 

The House has again sought to decriminalize fare evasion, allowing for an administrative citation instead. They say the criminal citation is rarely prosecuted and creates opportunity for racial profiling, while keeping police from stopping more serious crime. Their proposal would also require the Met Council to report to the Legislature crime that occurs in the system, as well as how many citations they issued for fare evasion. But that may continue to face Senate opposition. 

(Disclosure: The author was once active in a group called Twin Cities Transit Riders Union and once said “Abolish Metro Transit Police” at a 2018 Met Council meeting.) 

Both the House and Senate would spend between $10 million and $14 million in 2021 federal infrastructure law matching funds to MnDOT to support greater Minnesota transit agencies. 

No gas tax holiday; the state needs it for the roads

Neither transportation bill in the House or Senate includes proposals for a gas tax holiday. Lawmakers, including Petersburg, said Minnesotans likely wouldn’t see much benefit because gas taxes are collected at the wholesaler when they distribute gas to retailers, not at the pump. 

And, a gas tax holiday would decrease funding for maintaining roads, which is a bipartisan priority. 

People drive down U.S. Highway 53 in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The Blatnik Bridge, which is in need of replacement, can be seen in the background. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

The House proposes to earmark over $633 million to design, build and maintain our state and local roads over the next two years, which includes fixing and replacing bridges, such as the Blatnik Bridge connecting Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin. The Senate proposes spending $1.1 billion in general fund and bond dollars, with most of the projects in the metro area. This includes $2 million for corridors of commerce, which bankrolls highway widening; $55 million to widen I-94 between Monticello and Albertville and to add ramps at Highway 610 in Maple Grove; $43.5 million for two interchanges along I-35 in Lakeville and North Branch; $43 million to realign Highway 73 south of Cromwell; and $85 million to rebuild Highway 23 in Lyon and Pipestone Counties.  

Both the House and Senate are acting on recommendations from MnDOT to ensure corridors of commerce dollars are more fairly allocated throughout the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, after advocates criticized the agency for allocating most of the prior appropriations to highways within 50 miles of downtown Minneapolis.

The Senate also wants to cancel funds for Reconnect Rondo, which has been lobbying MnDOT to build a land bridge over I-94 in the historically Black neighborhood, which was cleaved in half when the freeway was built in the 1960s. 

When it comes to electric vehicles, the House wants to spend $6.8 million over the next two years to install charging stations, which will match funding earmarked by the 2021 federal infrastructure law. The Senate, on the other hand, doesn’t want to allocate any matching state funds. Both want EV charging stations to be built at rest areas, but the Senate wants to spend less federal infrastructure law money earmarked for EV chargers there, and wants the stations along highways all online by November 2023. 

The House wants to convene a task force to study how to tax people who drive electric vehicles. The Senate would increase the electric vehicle registration fee to $229; create a new surcharge for plug-in hybrids, electric motorcycles and plug-in hybrid motorcycles; and index future changes for both surcharges to changes in the gas tax.

On the safety front, both the House and Senate want to crack down on speeding, which has gone up since the pandemic began. Speed contributed to 162 traffic deaths in 2021, a 33% increase from 2020, according to the Department of Public Safety (DPS). The House wants to allocate $2.5 million, some of which will fund a plan to deploy cameras to monitor speeding, and to convene a council on traffic safety. The Senate wants to spend $45.5 million so the State Patrol can buy and maintain aircraft to patrol highways. 

When it comes to licensing drivers, both the House and Senate want to allow new Minnesota residents to obtain a license without taking a written exam if they have one from another state, joining states such as Oregon and Texas. The House wants DPS to study digital drivers’ licenses. They also want to give recently released prisoners free licenses, though that’s likely to face opposition in the Senate.

Not much for biking and walking

The Legislature has little in store to improve biking and walking, despite 67 cyclist and pedestrian fatalities last year, up 18% from 2020. Additionally, more people are interested in electric bikes amid rising gas prices, while the pandemic also induced more people to partake in outdoor activities. Market research company NPD Group reported e-bike sales increased 47% in the 12 months before October 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

The House proposes to spend $14.4 million for biking and walking, some of which will fund the state’s Safe Routes to Schools program, which helps children bike and walk to school. The Senate also wants to fund Safe Routes to Schools, but only with an additional $1 million above money already allocated last year. 

The Senate also wants to provide an extra $4 million for schools and school bus companies to install cameras on school buses. This was first proposed last session after several incidents of students hit by people driving. 

Trains to Chicago and Duluth in the air

The House proposes spending $51 million to design, engineer and build infrastructure for a passenger train to run between Minneapolis and Duluth. They also propose to spend $740,000 in 2023 to pay for a second train from St. Paul to Chicago, which is currently served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder five days a week because of the company’s ongoing worker shortage. The Senate wants to cut $500,000 that was allocated for intercity rail last session. 

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H. Jiahong Pan
H. Jiahong Pan

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues.