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Dave Van Hattum: Build bigger roads, or build a future?

Date Published: 05/01/2009

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Dave Van Hattum: Build bigger roads, or build a future?
There's no question that the nation's economy needs a kick in the pants. With an unemployment rate at nearly 8 percent and rising, Americans need to get back to work.

Still, Americans want to understand how stimulus money will be spent. How will the country measure the success of its investments in schools, transportation, health care and other programs designed to create jobs and build a sustainable economy?

In Minnesota, the debate over spending transportation dollars from the stimulus package provides a microcosm of the national debate. The governor, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council are determining how to spend the money: How much should go toward providing Minnesotans with more opportunities to take transit, walk or bike; how much should go toward repairing roads, and how much should be used for expanding the highway system?

During this process, transparent planning and accountability for results should be a top priority. State residents deserve to know how their federal tax dollars are spent, and they have asked for more options in getting around.

With that in mind, the draft plan being prepared by MnDOT and the Met Council for metropolitan projects -- directing most of the money to two large highway-expansion projects -- is a bit puzzling.

By MnDOT's own reports, there will continue to be unmet needs for maintenance on Minnesota's roads and bridges. That's not surprising, given that the Twin Cities region has more highway lanes per capita than Los Angeles or Detroit. If there is one thing the national economic downturn is teaching our nation, it's that we simply can't afford to buy beyond our means -- and that means not building new highways if we can't maintain the ones we already have.

At the same time, Minnesotans are begging for more buses, trains and livable neighborhoods. They are driving less and less; transit ridership is at its highest level in more than half a century, and local calls for new rail lines and bike facilities grow louder by the day.

That dip in driving actually precedes the current economic downturn by several years and was exacerbated, not created, by rising fuel costs. Our state is changing; our population is growing older; economizing on car travel is popular, and more people are choosing neighborhoods that allow them to take transit, walk or bike to get around. These trends have radically changed what residents demand from their transportation system. Spending priorities must reflect that new reality, especially with a metro-area transit system facing one of the largest deficits in state history.

If the emphasis is on creating new jobs, our state agencies should place a high priority on making that happen. Developing the infrastructure needed for a 21st-century transportation system -- which includes buses and trains, intercity rail, well-maintained roads and bridges, and bike and pedestrian amenities -- will create tens of thousands of good jobs. Nearly 10 percent more jobs, in fact, than merely expanding roads and bridges that will grow congested again after a year or two at best.

No doubt there is a necessary urgency to identify "shovel-ready" projects and get people back to work. If MnDOT and the Met Council fail to prioritize transit and road maintenance, but rather move forward with plans to advance a couple of major highway-expansion projects, they are not simply straying from our state's most-pressing needs -- they are moving away from their own goals and priorities of safety, moving people and innovation.

Minnesota has a choice: Use the economic stimulus investments to dramatically revitalize our transportation infrastructure, or spend it on "business as usual." There will always be local pressure to address just one more critical bottleneck, but nearly one-third of Minnesotans can't drive due to age, health or inability to afford a car. Our state agencies must act in a transformative and transparent manner to advance the common good and provide Minnesotans with the transportation options for which residents have long asked.

Dave Van Hattum is the policy and advocacy program manager at Transit for Livable Communities. He is also the coauthor of the report "Transportation Performance in the Twin Cities Region."


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