Former transportation commissioner: No reason for rural resentment

Former Minnesota transportation commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg is blowing up one of the most widely-held assertions in Minnesota today: that the transportation issue pits the Twin Cities metro against people in rural Minnesota.

In an op-ed objecting to a Star Tribune story that claimed that metro taxpayers put more money into the transportation system than they get in return, Tinklenberg writes that the story wasn’t factually wrong, it was wrong in principle.

He says there’s nothing in the state’s transportation system that can be divided into “metro” and “rural.”

I grew up in a small town in central Minnesota that’s located along Hwy. 169. This was a two-lane highway when I lived there, and I remember as a teenager needing to plan ahead on Friday and Sunday nights to make sure I was on the right side of 169 early, because once the Twin Cities weekend lake traffic started, you couldn’t get back across. I complained constantly about how miserably inconvenient the impact of all that traffic was on my social life, until someone pointed out to me what all the traffic meant to the economy of our little county.

When 169 was finally expanded to four lanes through our community, it wasn’t to serve the traffic being generated there, it was to serve the needs of people from “the Cities” and the state’s interest in connecting them to recreational opportunities all over northern Minnesota. So does that make 169 a rural road or an urban road, and what sense does it make to say that the investment the state made in it counts exclusively as a rural benefit?

There are plenty of other examples Tinklenberg cited which comes down to a truth: people in the metro don’t just stay in the metro.

Instead of recognizing and valuing how transportation connects us — literally brings us together — the Star Tribune’s analysis creates a divisive bifurcation of that system, especially its headline conclusion that funding is “lopsided” in favor of one region over the other. Such a superficial conclusion serves only to pit us against each other, and to ultimately undermine all our efforts to cooperatively and reasonably identify the critical resources necessary to preserve and enhance transportation in our state as a whole.

A commenter would disagree:

We have built more infrastructure in the past than we can afford to maintain today. We upgraded certain rural stretches beyond their economic value under the faith enough economic “growth” would come from it to justify. They the repair bill comes due, and a certain political party decided to campaign on a distortion that “their region” was keeping the metro area fat and happy with a one way wealth transfer.

The truth in the data is uncomfortable. And makes for awkward reversals of messaging for those politicians confronted with the fact that the strong economic engine of the metro area is paying for the overbuilt infrastructure outstate, not the reverse.

With the data proving the metro area, especially the wealthy southwest suburbs, pays the rural infrastructure, there is a chance some rural politicians could change their tack and wish to keep the goose that is laying the state’s economic golden egg going. Good rail networks are wealth engines to metro areas.

Maybe fighting rural resentment with data isn’t helpful in curing rural resentment. You know what also isn’t helping cure rural resentment? The current state of affairs where we don’t talk about how rural Minnesota is unsustainable today and can only exist like it does with a quiet wealth transfer of LGA, transportation funding, and housing aid. Keeping this going isn’t fixing the problems either. Heck, I’m glad to see rural politicians publicly voicing approval for the wisdom Minnesota Miracle struck a few decades ago. So sad they flip flop for campaign season.