here for PDF format
Participants' Responses to This
of Meeting with Robert McFarlin
8301 Creekside Circle,
Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, April 25,
Speaker: Robert McFarlin,
commissioner, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)
Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje, and Jim Olson (all by phone)
Context of the meeting--The
Civic Caucus has been conducting several meetings with leaders of various
jurisdictions on the matter of transportation policy and priority setting
Welcome and introduction--Verne
and Paul introduced Robert McFarlin,
acting commissioner, MnDOT, who has served as acting commissioner
following the departure of Carol Molnau in February. A new commissioner,
Tom Sorel, was appointed this week by Governor Pawlenty and will take
office on Monday, April 28. Today is McFarlin's last as acting
being named acting commissioner McFarlin served five years as assistant to
the commissioner for transportation policy and public affairs. Earlier
he had served as MnDOT's director of public affairs and as chief of staff
for nearly a decade. He also has served as private consultant.
McFarlin has degrees of bachelor of science in business administration and
master of arts in speech communication from the University of Minnesota.
Comments and discussion--During
McFarlin's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Honor to serve--McFarlin said it
is a highlight of his career to have served as acting commissioner.
MnDOT is regarded highly among state transportation agencies for its
public involvement and quality of engineering staff, he said. It is an
exciting time at MnDOT now, he said, as the agency implements a new
transportation funding law enacted by the 2008 Legislature. The
Legislature has done well by the law in specifying how resources are to be
cited by some others about engineers leaving MnDOT are greatly overstated,
McFarlin said. The agency always has had trouble retaining experienced
people because pay scales are higher in the private sector. MnDOT,
however, has been able to attract large numbers of talented younger
engineers and other employees. Many of them who leave for the private
sector return later to MnDOT, he said.
example of quality personnel, McFarlin singled out John Chiglo, project
manager for the 35W bridge reconstruction over the Mississippi River.
2. Construction capacity reached?-- A
Civic Caucus member noted the presence of many highway construction
projects in the metropolitan area, with work going on night and day and
weekends, requiring motorists to adjust their travel plans. The member
inquired whether it's possible to add to the MnDOT workload.
said the department is not maxed out. MnDOT works hard to manage
construction with minimum disruption to the system. He cited examples
where stretches of roadway are completely shut down to make it possible to
finish work faster.
3. MnDOT role with other government agencies--It
was noted that the Civic Caucus has had extensive discussions over the
last several weeks concerning a proliferation of agencies in
transportation, including the addition of a new transit organization by
the 2008 Legislature. A member said that transportation is of key
importance to the economy of the state but it is very difficult to figure
out who, if anyone, has visionary responsibility for the entire system.
replied that MnDOT has a very clear primary legislative and constitutional
role, to maintain the integrity of 12,000 miles of trunk highways. MnDOT
has an excellent relationship with the Metropolitan Council, he said. The
agency also works closely with the counties and cities.
4. New county-based joint powers board for
transit--McFarlin was asked whether MnDOT is concerned that the
Legislature seems to be creating one body for providing revenue for rail
transit (a new county-based joint powers board), while the Metro Council
is responsible for bus transit.
said a new system is not being imposed but that transportation is in
transition in the metropolitan area. He said the assignment of rail
funding to counties was one reason the Governor vetoed the legislation.
The veto subsequently was overridden.
5. Making a rail-vs.-bus choice prematurely?--McFarlin
said there are places in the metro area where rail is needed, but that
people sometimes jump to a conclusion that rail is the answer before the
transportation problem has been adequately defined. He would hope that
sober analysis of bus and rail options would be thoroughly explored before
a choice is made.
6. Objectives of rail transit--A
member noted our discussions in previous weeks have revealed significant
differences in objectives for rail transit, with some rail advocates
stressing first the importance of rail as being a development tool, and,
second as means of moving people.
7. Rail not favored as congestion-reliever--McFarlin
said that rail should not been seen primarily as a means of reducing
congestion. Anyone who defends a rail proposal as reducing congestion is
doomed to failure, he said. If you take a look at the Hiawatha line, he
said, you see improvements in mobility for people and some economic
development, but you're not reducing congestion on freeways such as 35W.
outlined he following advantages of rail:
development along the route
--opportunities for cluster housing
8. Outside factors in establishing priorities--You're
not going to find all transportation priorities relating simply to making
traffic move more smoothly, McFarlin said. First, you have to recognize
that leaders in the Legislature and in Congress want to see balance in
transportation investments according mode (e.g. rail versus roads) and
according to geography. The fact that 60 percent of trunk highway
investments in the state occur outside the metropolitan area indicates
that the Legislature believes that geographic balance is very important.
Legislature also has specified that MnDOT is to invest $600 million of new
money in bridge repair and replacement. You can argue over the relative
priority of a bridge versus a new road, he said, but the Legislature
decides on the bridge priority and we go with that.
factor to remember, McFarlin said, is the need for several strategies to
solve a given transportation problem. For example, he said, the Northstar
commuter rail line from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis doesn't remove
the need for further improvements on Hwy. 10 and I-94. We need both the
rail and road improvements, he said.
9. Realignment of rail responsibility between
MnDOT and Merto Council--A member asked whether, given the key
role of the Legislature, the state has an overall transportation plan.
McFarlin said MnDOT has such a plan which is both descriptive and
prescriptive for highways but is more descriptive for bus, light rail and
commuter rail. Commuter rail is longer-distance rail, connecting the
urban area with the far suburban area, usually on established regular
railroad tracks. An example is the Northstar rail line from Big Lake to
Minneapolis, now in construction. Light rail is usually within the
heavily-built-up urban area and usually has its own new right-of-way next
to or within an existing roadway. An example is the Hiawatha line from the
Mall of America to downtown
This is where coordination with the Metro Council is so key, he said. The
Legislature had assigned MnDOT chief responsibility for commuter rail, but
a bill is now working it way through the Legislature--with MnDOT
support--to place policy for commuter rail in the Metropolitan Council,
which already is responsible for policy on light rail. The Federal
Transit Administration was confused by the assignment of commuter rail to
MnDOT and light rail to the Metropolitan Council.
10. Leadership role of the Governor--The
Governor is intimately involved in transportation policy, McFarlin said.
He disagreed with observations that perhaps the Governor is not providing
overall transportation policy leadership. The Legislature chose to enact
a different funding approach from that recommended by the Governor.
However, a Civic Caucus member observed that Governor has no state
planning agency and that there doesn't seem to be a unified transportation
policy plan for the entire state that includes tradeoffs between roads and
11. Overall transportation policy structure is
adequate?--A member inquired
whether McFarlin believes that the state transportation policy structure,
involving the Governor, the Legislature, MnDOT, and the host of local
jurisdictions, is working adequately and needs no changes. McFarlin
replied that he sees no need for a massive overhaul.
the Metropolitan Council's area of jurisdiction on transportation,
McFarlin said that metro area transportation needs extend far beyond the
seven counties in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Council. That's
why, he said, MnDOT is supporting the placement of commuter rail under the
Council, as he mentioned previously
12. New transportation funding options--Looking
to the future, McFarlin sees potential in some kind of mileage-based tax.
Experiments are under way in that regard, he said. It might be possible
to vary such a tax by time of day and location of travel, he
said some people confuse mileage-based taxation with congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing, such as is in effect on I-394, is primarily a traffic
management tool, not a revenue-raising measure.
13. Thanks--On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked McFarlin for meeting with us today.