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The Carletonian

Minnesota state legislature funds $6.6 billion transportation bill

<ta state legislature began its 2008 legislative session just two weeks ago, but already it has passed a controversial transportation funding bill that failed to pass in 2003 and again in 2005. This Monday, after a weekend long vote scramble, state politicians overrode Governor Tim Pawlenty’s veto to pass the Transportation Funding Bill, House File 2800.

The bill increases Minnesota’s gas tax by a nickel, the first gas tax increase in twenty years. It will also raise transit taxes and increase the license tab fee on new cars – all at a time when the economy is struggling.

Still, state Democrats argue that roads, bridges, and transit systems are in decay and inhibiting growth. Additionally, after the Minneapolis bridge collapse and a Legislative Audit of the MnDOT reported that the Department does not have the money to maintain its transportation system, everyone fears that state infrastructure will continue to crumble if the state does not commit money to its upkeep.

The Transportation Funding Bill certainly commits money to the problem, but spending a massive $6.6 billion over the next ten years on roads, bridges, and public transportation was more than what some House members bargained for. The bill calls for expansion of public transportation options and extends public transit to rural communities like Northfield. It specifically allocates $58 million for transit for rural communities. Furthermore, it funds expansions of the seven county Metro Transit system and will make the Twin Cities more likely to win federal funding by proving residents’ dedication to the public transit system.

Proponents of the legislation defend the bill by arguing that the tax increase reduces out-of-pocket money that residents pay at the pump. The Minnesota Transportation Alliance explains that congestion in the Twin Cities costs the average commuter $790 each year in fuel costs while the Transportation Funding Bill asks families earning an income between $50,000 and $70,000 to pay about $126 more a year in taxes. This calculation shows that supporting a public transportation system that eases congestion and attracts growth may be far less expensive than continuing to fill up at the pump. The bill could also boost the employment rate by providing thousands with construction jobs.

Supporting public transit systems also benefits the environment by easing congestion, improving air quality, and reducing the need for damaging oil extraction processes. In addition, the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit has invested in hybrid gasoline-electric buses, making transportation even more energy and fuel-efficient.

State legislators in the House and the Senate first showed their support for the transportation bill last Friday when they sent it to Governor Tim Pawlenty’s desk with 89-44 and 47-20 winning margins in the House and Senate respectively. But the Republican Governor stayed consistent with his earlier message that he would veto tax increases.

He commented that the tax hikes would stress low-income Americans when they could afford it least. However, low-income Americans who do not own cars would likely be the greatest beneficiaries of a system that funds public transit and makes transportation to and from work more convenient.

Even Pawlenty’s own Metropolitan Council recommended that he sign the Transportation Funding Bill stating, “Funding at current levels will result in significant increases in traffic congestion, delaying the movement of people and goods, reducing the region’s economic competitiveness and harming our quality of life.”

After Pawlenty’s veto, DFL House speaker Margaret Kelliher began her weekend long search for the override vote. The original House vote was just one vote shy of a veto-proof win.
Kelliher said that late changes made to the bill convinced people to switch their vote. The bill now includes a quarter cent sales tax increase in the metro area; before Friday the same sales tax was twice that rate.

These vote shifts may mark the beginning of a trend toward bipartisan voting for strong environmental legislation; they also suggest an unpredictable legislative season.

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