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Did Minnesota Just Release the Best Statewide Transportation Bill Yet?

Minnesota's new state transportation financing and policy bill reads like a sustainable transportation advocates' holiday wishlist. How did they get there— and could it be a model for other communities, too?

Photo: Weston M, CC

State transportation bills may not get as much attention as their federal counterparts, but they have a colossal impact on how we get around. And the state of Minnesota may have just created one of the most exciting blueprints yet for progressive governments across the country to follow — even if it took them the better part of three decades to do it. 

At nearly $9 billion of total spending and 250 pages, the not-particularly-memorably-named HF 2887 is packed to the brim with legislation that's likely to be on many sustainable transportation advocates' wish lists. Here are a few items that have caught the attention of locals, and might be inspiring to advocates further afield. The new bill will...

  • Require the Minnesota Department of Transportation to study whether freeway projects will increase emissions and vehicle miles traveled, and either cancel them or mitigate their negative impacts by investing in other modes or land use reforms 
  • Index the gas tax to inflation and increase sales tax on new vehicles, with 40 percent of the latter going to transit
  • Create a new retail delivery fee to offset the wear and tear that delivery giants put on Minnesota roads, with exemptions for small businesses 
  • Create a new sales tax in the Twin Cities area specifically for transit, while Devoting $230 million to Twin Cities transit operations, effectively saving the network from a looming fiscal cliff
  • Create a state-wide e-bike rebate of up to $1,500 for qualified households, in addition to $2,500 rebates for electric cars under $55k
  • Dedicate $79 million to bus rapid transit 
  • Dedicate $205 million to enhance inter-city rail
  • Dedicate $76 million to the office of Transit and Active Transportation, which builds out bicycle and pedestrian networks statewide, plus $13 billion for bicycle, pedestrian, and accessibility infrastructure in the Twin Cities and Rochester
  • Dedicate $28 million towards making it easier to walk and bike to school 
  • Fund a Twin Cities greenway extension that urban studies expert Bill Lindeke says could become “the best urban bikeway on the continent”
  • Launch an 18 month free transit pilot for seniors and people with mobility challenges
  • Decriminalize fare evasion and added increased funding for transit ambassadors, mental health professionals and social workers  to keep the transit system safe 
  • Increase access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, people leaving incarceration, and those who experienced license suspension for failure to appear in court
  • Legalize the “Idaho stop” (also known as stop-as-yield) for bicyclists
  • Require communities to explore transit signal priorities to speed up bus routes 

On this episode of The Brake, we sit down with two Minnesota lawmakers and transportation committee chairmen — Senator Scott Dibble and Representative Frank Hornstein — to unpack the rest of the legislation, as well as how it will help the Land of 10,000 Lakes meet its ambitious driving reduction goals, and what other communities can learn from their fight to get it over the finish line. 

Tune in below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.

Kea Wilson: Let's start with a little 101. In broad terms, why do you think state budgets matter so much for local transportation? And why should advocates get involved in what sounds like can be very lengthy, complex, multi decade conversations about what they're going to look like?

Sen. Scott Dibble: It's the states where the decisions get made, simply put. It's frustrating, because a lot of people pay a lot of attention to federal politics, to Congress, the federal government, because it seems cool, or I don't know, just because there's a lot of action, a lot of power, a lot of money there. But the fact of the matter is that,, in this country, the decisions get made at the state level.

So all those federal funds that flow to states, they get implemented at the state level. And it's the states that develop the policies, the design, the facilities that they prioritize, and they have the final say. So all those federal dollars that are flowing specifically out of [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] are not going to realize and fulfill their intent and aspirations and purpose, unless state legislators – the executive branch at the state level, governor's offices, departments of transportation, and transit agencies — are ready to receive those dollars, match those dollars, and have the policies in place and put those dollars to the best possible use to benefit the most number of people. [We need that] to be of benefit to our environment, to our climate, and to help us design the kinds of communities where people can really succeed.

The action is at the state level. So people would be well-advised to spend their time hanging out with state legislators and designing these policies....

Kea Wilson: Hearing the two of you talk about all these policies, It's just such a comprehensive laundry list of things that sustainable transportation advocates have been calling for in their own communities nationally. And it's making me wonder: why did it come to be that this bill has is just so stuffed with, well, stuff? Why did you take such a big bite at the apple and do it all in one big mega-bill, as opposed to chipping away at it with little standalone pieces of legislation?

Rep. Frank Hornstein: Well, your listeners may be interested to know that I am the transportation chair that doesn't drive. And part of that is — as Scott will attest — I am not the best driver. And so when my kids all went off to college, I decided, 'You know what, I'm going to try this; I don't have to have a car." And I have I feel a lot of less stress personally because of that, but it's also allowed me to see the potential of transit, the potential of bike and ped investments, and how far we have to go in order to get there.

And so while that drove a lot of my thinking in terms of putting this bill together, we absolutely could not have done this without strong grassroots organizing across a number of sectors, environmental groups, energy groups, transit groups, faith based organizations, all really coming together. They've had a lot of practice over many years with this advocacy; the house had actually passed a version of this bill, twice before. So we were really ready to go from the beginning. We hit the ground running.

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