Friday, May 25, 2007

The roadblock wins another round

Two decades of transportation failure continues.

In basketball, a score of 137-60 is a blowout victory. In Minnesota politics, it's a loss.

The transportation bill got 137 votes in the Legislature this session. That's a solid 70 percent majority and, if you believe in representative government, pretty good evidence that Minnesotans are willing to pay for fixing their crumbling roads and expanding their skimpy transit systems.

But Tim Pawlenty isn't willing. And so, for the second time in three years, a veto, wielded by a governor who has never been elected by a majority of Minnesotans, has prevented substantial progress against the state's most gnawing problem: the 20-year failure to adequately build and maintain its transportation system.

That means that drivers stuck in Brooklyn Park's "Devil's Triangle," or in Eden Prairie's nightmarish tangle of Hwys. 494, 212 and 5, or on any number of outdated and dangerous roadways outstate will have to wait years, perhaps decades, before the state has the money to respond. It means that commuters in the southwestern suburbs, eager for a light-rail line, will have to wait until after 2025, and that other transit projects, hoping to build on the popularity of the Hiawatha line and an advantageous moment in Congress, will have to wait even longer than that. It means higher property taxes as road costs are pushed increasingly to local governments. It means that employers looking to add quality jobs will skip over the Twin Cities in favor of rival markets that are moving well ahead on transportation and land-use innovations that anticipate a new era of high energy costs and environmental concerns. It means a smoggy bumper-to-bumper future and a declining quality of life.

Pawlenty will be blamed for leaving Minnesota behind on all of these fronts. He has placed ideology and national political ambition ahead of his state's best interest.

Rather than raise the taxes and fees required to face head-on the annual $1.7 billion transportation shortfall, the governor has stuck to his incrementalist policy: Borrow about one-tenth of that amount, force our children to pay it back and nibble away at the edges. That's like attacking an iceberg with an icepick.

Business is also to blame. While the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce supported a nickel gas tax increase for roads, it opposed giving counties the authority to raise sales taxes for transit, the financial tool that has allowed other markets to push far ahead of the Twin Cities. It's a mystery why a sales tax for transit can be acceptable to business leaders in Denver, Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego, but not here. All of those cities have considerably higher rates than Minneapolis-St. Paul yet seem to be flourishing.

The bottom line is that a few people short on vision and courage are still blocking the road for everyone else. It may take another election and even higher gas prices for enough people to realize that there's no going back to the days of cheap driving and that the future belongs to those places with the foresight to invest in the efficiency and variety of their transportation systems.

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