Funding transport in Minnesota

I was interviewed by the Heartland Institute about transportation funding in Minnesota. Being leery given their reputation, I asked for the questions in writing. I was right to be leery, they still managed to misattribute opinions to me in the posted article despite the interview being in writing. I have asked for a correction and will update if they provide one. Update June 17, 2016: Posted article is corrected.

These are the actual questions and my actual answers.

Fresno Gas Prices (Dec 2001)

On May 27, 2016, at 13:43, Jeff Reynolds <> wrote:

Hi David,

Thanks for taking a bit of time for my article. I have just a couple of basic questions.

1.       What are the pros and cons of this particular user fee that was proposed in MN?

Why we should raise gas taxes now:

• Road quality is not where we would like it and will only get worse if insufficient revenues are raised to maintain and reconstruct existing infrastructure, as existing roads continue to age and deteriorate.

• Raising gas taxes is more administratively efficient in the short run than implementing tolls or mileage fees, especially tolls requiring lots of infrastructure. It presently has lower collection costs. There is no guarantee that will remain true as new technologies change the cost of collection.

• Currently roads are only partially funded with gas taxes, general revenue is a major source. This charges non-users as well as users, and sends no signal about the appropriate amount of roads that should be built or how scarce road space should be allocated.

• So, states like Minnesota can (they are perfectly capable of, the price of gas tax is a small share of the price of gas, and a 5 or 10c increase is well within weekly volatility of gas prices) (and should for the reasons above) raise the gas tax before using property taxes or general revenue to pay for roads.

We do need to be careful that the money gets spent on maintaining the valuable parts of the existing system, not building wasteful new facilities. There is a serious lack of trust in existing institutions. Minnesota, like all states, has built roads for political reasons rather than because demand warranted it.

In contrast, the vehicle sales tax or property tax (in its various forms) favors travelers who drive more miles per vehicle (i.e. rural travelers), and provides no incentives to reduce demand. It encourages people to keep vehicles longer, which keeps older technology around longer (whether this is an environmental cost is unclear, as the environmental cost of building new vehicle is not small). Dedicating transportation-sourced sales tax to transportation expenditures is a hidden subsidy, since those funds are no longer able to pay for the general costs of government. Why should sales taxes on gasoline or motor oil only pay for roads, but sales taxes on everything else pay for schools and police?

2.       Is more revenue necessary, or would MN be better served to reprioritize its spending?

Minnesota, like all states should reprioritize its spending, favoring maintenance and preservation over new construction, but it should also reform where it gets its funds for transportation. There is no good reason that transportation should be subsidized by general funds dollars, which is true now for more than half of all state and local transport expenditures. Roads, like electricity and natural gas should be thought of, and managed like a utility, and the beneficiaries should pay proportional to use. This requires significant governance reforms, but would help reduce politically-driven investments.

3.       Why did the legislature reject these proposals?

Republicans are afraid of voting for gas tax increases. After the I-35w Bridge Collapse in 2007, a gas tax hike was brought to legislature in 2008.

The “Override Six” are Republicans who voted with the DFL (Minnesota Democratic Party) to override Gov. Pawlenty’s veto of the gas tax bill. Four of them lost their seats due to Primary challenges, while the Republicans lost two of those seats to the DFL in the 2008 General Election. This lead to the rule that voting in favor of a gas tax increase can be dangerous to your political health, if you are a Republican.

4.       What’s next for MN and its infrastructure?

The Governor and some are discussing a special session of the legislature, but in the absence of that, it will come up again next year, after the election, and the DFL might recapture both Houses and then in that event will likely pass some form of gas tax increase statewide and raise the transit sales tax in the Metro area to pay for transit capital expenditures for new LRT and Bus Rapid Transit lines.

— David

Untethered: How communities are physically drifting apart

In the dark age before electricity, great mills were located adjacent to waterfalls to provide direct energy. This is the origin story of many early industrial revolution cities including Minneapolis. The development of the electric grid, first DC, then AC, untethered milling from the falls.

St. Anthony Falls and the Mill City Museum

In the age before the streetcar, people lived within walking distance of their jobs. Downtown was very important. With the streetcar and subway, downtown remained important, as the destination of a radial commuting, shopping, or entertainment trip beginning farther out in suburbs. But with the automobile, not only residences, but first shops and then workplaces could become untethered from their downtown anchor at the head-end of the transit system. Downtowns in many US cities haven’t added employment in many decades, and almost all have lost market share.

Yet the individual’s daily activity pattern itself was still confined to a roughly 30 minute radius (sometimes referred to Marchetti’s constant, but identified by Zahavi and others earlier). This helped glue cities together.

With soon-to-be-deployed mobility technologies like Automated Vehicles (AVs)  this commuting budget range can expand. Thirty minutes of actively engaged traveling (driving, biking, walking) is not the same as thirty minutes as a disengaged passenger in a (commuter train or) autonomous vehicles.

With new and better telecommunications technologies — which admittedly people have been talking about this for ages, but which are steadily getting better — the requirement for in person meetings steadily drops. With fewer in-person meetings, there are fewer days per week that one needs to “go” to work, which means a weekly commuting budget may be a more appropriate concept than a daily one. It also means off-peak travel is more likely.  Non-work trips are likely to substitute in part for work trips, but they won’t be as long or as peaked. With less congestion in any case due to AVs and changes in demand patterns, roads are faster. All of which suggests even more decentralization of residences and less physical tethering between home and work.

Telecommunications also no longer requires wires, as wireless gets more efficient. So the need to be on the wired telecom network is not required.

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

Rooftop solar energy is increasingly becoming feasible. Without the need to attach to an electric grid (though maybe still wanting to due to load balancing – though with enough energy conversion efficiency this doesn’t matter), and with more power available on large rooftops where land is less scarce, score one more for decentralization.

Even in the absence of flying cars, though most certainly with it, the costs of living in isolation and physically unconnected from the city drop. The consequence is a greater trend toward decentralization. Sorry urbanists.

Now the urbanists will say, rightly, that cities are getting better too. While life for the disconnected may be improving, the quality of life for highly tethered urbanites might also be rising. Urban pollution will drop as renewable energy and electric vehicles become standard and social amenities will always be closer in terms of travel time.

Where anyone will live depends on their preferences and the opportunities available to them. The good news is advances in technology suggests more opportunities will be available. The bad news is your opportunities depend on the preferences of others. I can’t be alone in wanting to live a city of 100 million people (imagine the specialization in food, stores, and entertainment possible at that scale) and expect to be able to satisfy that want. I need more than 99 million of my closest friends to agree.