Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Zip Rail bonding not included in Gov. Dayton's proposal

The legislative season in Minnesota began on January 24th and is is getting into full swing, so let your crabby letter-writing commence!  Governor Mark Dayton released his bonding proposal a week before the session started, and one thing that's missing is $15 million requested by the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority for the Zip Rail line from the Twin Cities to Rochester.

The regular session is constitutionally limited, ending in late May or earlier (I went to a meeting with my state senator and representative on Tuesday night, and they think it may end in April this year).  The session may be halfway done before you know it...

I don't totally understand the process, but Minnesota's two-year legislative cycle usually works by passing the state budget in the first year, then passing a bonding bill in the second year.  (There are, of course, many other non-budgetary laws that happen as well.)  The biennial budget is big, on the order of $35 billion (actual numbers seem to be rather fuzzy).  The bonding bill, in comparison, is tiny.  This year, Governor Mark Dayton is proposing one totaling $775 million, though apparently Republican leaders want to limit that to $300 to $400 million.  Democrats would probably like something bigger than the governor's proposal.

Anyway, to put the numbers in a broader context, compare it to Minnesota's GDP—on the order of $265 billion in 2008.  Note that this number should be doubled to compare it to biennial budget and bonding numbers.  Governor Dayton said that he declined to support the Zip Rail line because he didn't foresee a way of funding it, but I feel that's a poor justification.  For one, we still don't even know what route the line will take—substantial spending on the full line (probably on the order of $1 billion in total) is still years away, and we don't know what the political landscape will be like at that point.

I'll just say that Mn/DOT seems to typically get about $1 billion per year in funding, though I think that shrank in the most recent construction season.  Somewhat surprisingly, Governor Pawlenty's administration seems to have had a program to boosted spending by the state DOT, at least during his second term, though that has now more or less ended.  On balance, I wouldn't be surprised if we've roughly maintained overall transportation funding levels, however—The Central Corridor light-rail project is spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year, but it is largely a Metropolitan Council project rather than a Mn/DOT one.

A few days before releasing his bonding proposal, Governor Dayton directed Mn/DOT commissioner Tom Sorel to create a new advisory committee to find funding sources for transportation in the coming years and decades.  According to the governor's press release, the group is supposed to submit a report by December 1st of this year to outline non-traditional sources of revenue for projects in the state over the next two decades.

I guess I find it striking that the governor is both attempting to look forward and feeling constrained at the same time, and I'm not quite sure he's coming to the correct conclusions.

It's easy to succumb to the fatalistic drumbeat of those who believe that in one way or another, our country or society is failing.  In some ways we are, but the solution isn't just to pull the plug on government or the idea of progress.

I wrote a letter to the governor about the Zip Rail project because I felt he was getting the wrong idea.  I started it off by recalling an event from my teenage years when my history teacher told the classroom, "You may be the first generation to see a world without oil."  I often think of that scene when I ponder which paths we need to explore.

Rochester is somewhat unique because there was never a rail line between it and the Twin Cities that is as direct or as fast as U.S. 52 is today.  For most of the state, and even most of the country, we just have to rehabilitate what already exists and make sure it operates as efficiently as possible.

Despite the governor's disinclusion of funding, I don't think it will put a halt to the Zip Rail project—as I noted back in September, they were initially starting on a $2 million study.  The requested $15 million would really be put to use in later stages of the planning process.  I suspect we've still got a year or so before that amount of money is really needed, but it's always good to have things ready ahead of time.

Apologies if this is a bit more rambling than usual—this is a topic that has been stewing in my mind for a few weeks, and I just wanted to get it relatively finished before I find myself looking at the tail end of the legislative session.

1 comment:

  1. Good overview of the issue. I would like to hear more from Dayton about his reasoning for not funding ZipRail - I agree that what was printed in the paper seemed unlikely or poorly thought out. Hopefully he's not writing off further federal funding for passenger rail.

    Re: the bump in MnDOT funding in Pawlenty's second term - was that due to the Stimulus?