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 Response Page - Tom Sorel  Interview - Transportation Plan    

These comments are responses to the questions listed below,
which were generated in regard to the
Tom Sorel Interview of 02-20-09.

The questions:

1._7.2 average____ On a scale of (0) most disagreement, to (5) neutral, to (10) most agreement, what is your view on MnDOT's involving stakeholders (cities, counties, rail advocates, trucking interests, contractors, consultants) as it prepares its transportation plans?

2. _7.9 average____ On a scale of (0) most disagreement, to (5) neutral, to (10) most agreement, should MnDOT's plans set priorities among various road, rail and bus projects based on what is possible with limited funds, rather than compiling needs from stakeholders without setting priorities among them?

3. _9.0 average____ On a scale of (0) most disagreement, to (5) neutral, to (10) most agreement, should priorities take into consideration future operating expenses, as well as capital expenses?

Robert J. Brown (7) (10) (10)
I am not sure he is dealing with reality – he seems to not recognize the complexity and power of the special interest groups, both governmental units and private interests. It was disappointing to see that he did not raise the issue of the need for a State Planning agency to integrate transportation planning with other public interests. Another concern is that he needs to realize the real long term costs of maintenance of all the modes of transportation. The federal interstate system is a perfect example of the states being willing to assume responsibility for maintenance after the feds paid most of the initial cost of construction. It is the long term maintenance costs that are now creating enormous tax problems. There should be a complete review of ways to pay for public transportation which would include the real user contribution vs. public costs for all modes – automobile, bus, rail, air and water transportation. I suspect we subsidize the individual driver as much or more that mass transit, but I don’t really know the answer. One final point - I am still an advocate for Personal Rapid Transit in the metro area. This concept has never been seriously considered here even though the idea was developed at the U. of M.

David Durenberger
You do such great work. Stimulating. Great resource for “wise” old guys like me.

I chose not to answer your questions, not because I didn’t think they were appropriate, but because I didn’t learn much from Sorel’s responses other than he had an answer to every question and not much of a preamble.

The Governor has learned well how MN’s problems, its resources, his ideology, and his office can be summarized around clichés. He has what for most will be a believable answer to every question and a response to every concern. You won’t always agree, but you’ll know he’s thought about it and decided. He did not express a depth of understanding of what’s going on in the world, national, and regional economy and what long-range role the state (and local) and national government must play in building MN’s capacity to be in the future what we like to believe we were in the past.

Without that, how do we develop an investment plan for transportation? Oberstar has spent a lifetime on the range, with Blatnik, and with our gas tax dollars think doing transportation policy like the kid in a Chisholm sandbox with depression/WWII era toy truck and train that he once was. More is always better. And it’s good politics. He can also see the future of technology in transportation and he can see through the corporate self-interest in perpetuating the past. But, as policy advisers, we should be asking what business he has dictating the future of MN transportation, land use planning, investment decisions, economy, environment, etc. In the absence of some vision from MN private/public leadership and in the presence of a big state deficit and an economic recovery and investment act, he’ll get away with it.

Minnesota is not what it used to be. Why? What do we want to be? What can we at the state level do about it? What must we demand the federal government do about it? If we knew the answers to those questions we could assess the merits of a state transportation plan. I saw some reference to the State Planning Agency in the questions. So, what’s it doing these days?

Bob Green (0) (10) (10)

Marianne Curry (8) (10) (10)

Question 1: Collaboration is wonderful; however, if it merely produces a larger laundry list of "wishes" without addressing the tougher question of setting priorities within budgetary constraints, then the process is a waste of time and sure to disappoint everyone.

Question 3: As I have said over and over again, failure to take into account the future fiscal obligations of Operational & Maintenance Costs gets us into trouble by resulting in "tails" for Minnesota biennial budgets that consider just Capital Expenditures. That is basically dishonest and not transparent. Case in point: the current severe shortfall in transit farebox revenues, which of course must be covered by subsidies from the General Fund or elsewhere. If we expand LRT, it just means more of the same subsidies if there is an unwillingness to cover operating expenses with fare increases. Yet it is expected that highway maintenance will be covered by auto and truck "user" fees/taxes.

Bill Kuisle (9) (10) (10)
Question 2: You have to, at some time, realize what can be done and set priorities within those parameters

Question 3: This is a must. Why would you build something if you couldn't pay to operate it?

Donald Anderson (8) (8) (10)
Again, it appears that our needs greatly exceed our present abilities to fund these needs. Solution ?: that is the billion dollar question.

John S. Adams (9) (9) (10)

Charles Lutz (5) (9) (9)

John Milton (8) (0) (8)

Margaret Donahue (5) (2) (8)

Question 2: A rather loaded question. Developing an accurate assessment of need and then setting priorities are not mutually exclusive options.

Wayne Jennings (10) (8) (10)

Donna Anderson (8) (5) (8)

Bill Hamm (3) (10) (10)

The whole effort here will be to try to justify toll roads in Minnesota and use the money not only for highway rebuilding but also to support light rail and high speed rail which can't sustain themselves.

Question 1. The stakeholder process would be believable and beneficial if and only if we had something like $45 Billion of the $65 Billion we need. Under the present lack of funding he is blowing smoke.

Question 2. I am always in favor of reality.

David Broden (10) (7) (10)
Question 1: The involvement of all stakeholders is very positive as an approach to include a broad view of all the needs of transportation across the state for personnel, goods, services etc. The key will be how the input is handled and put together in an objective and balanced way. The MnDOT plan must present all needs as stated and then show an integrated and balanced approach. If some needs or topics are set aside then the open input approach may not have the benefits. I am however optimistic that all input will be reported and addressed in a fair and balanced way.

Question 2: This must be a two step process. First capturing the all the needs of each stakeholder and compiling these a benefit metric attached. To just list is not adequate I would suggest a well defined benefit metric for each need. After compiling all the needs the State of Mn priorities for jobs, environment, education, people movement, goods/services, should also be prioritized and the transportation needs matched. With those two steps the funding can be allocated where the benefits can best be realized for the whole state. If a process such as this is outlined and implemented the focus on "earmark" transportation projects should begin to fade into the sunset and we will get real

value for the dollar addressing needs and benefits. Bottom line is we need a full and well defined process from data gathering, to completion and use of the projects.

Question 3: Any plan for transportation must look at the life cycle cost of the project/activity. The investment is not just the capital expense but also the annual cost to the taxpayer and user of each item and also the future upgrade and maintenance. Without a clear look at the operating cost it is not possible to assess the real cost vs. benefits. There may some transportation projects that the state may decide the cost of subsidizing is the responsible way to proceed. It we proceed with known subsidy costs and the public is made aware of this cost we will have made a "sea state" change that ensure the public has an understanding of the real cost and perhaps will help to shape the future.

Conrad deFiebre (10) (10) (6)
Question 3: Yes, but not as the only, or even the prime, consideration. Public operating expenses for roads and bridges will always be much less than for transit and intercity rail, but to abandon those latter modes based on operating costs would be disastrous for our economy.

Roy Thompson

(Thompson asks about the relative position of transportation in the state's economy.)

Recently on channel 17 there was a TV show featuring the transportation systems of Minnesota. The show was well done showing the various developments that has influenced the road and streets as well as other transportation systems primarily in the metropolitan area.

The closing part of the program presented the question whether Minnesota has lost direction or ceased to be an important leader in many aspects of community growth and development. The question was posed in such a manner as to imply that transportation is the driving factor in such developments. It concluded with the thought that in the past many other states came to Minnesota to study or observe community systems that seemed to be working here. Recently officials and study groups have been going to other states studying transportation and systems that may be related to a slowing of the economy and the “good life” in Minnesota.

There is little question that access and location are and have been important factors driving many of the conditions that contributed to Minnesota’s leadership in numerous areas. However, important as it is, the transportation system is only the vehicle that moves the product, not the engine.

Historically Minnesota has often been providing leadership in the development and production of numerous “products”. The question might be, was transportation the primary start for these developments or now, can improved transport provide the impetus that seems to have been lost? A brief summary of reasons for prior leadership might be of value.

Significant roles in the economy occurred in a wide variety of areas. Creative, industrious, risk taking people played a critical role. The University of Minnesota played an important part not only training some of the leaders but was significant in continuing or further development of many products. Many were the result of the state’s natural resources. Agriculture made major contributions because of the wide climatic and other environmental differences. The grain exchange, milling industry, South St Paul Livestock market, paint industry, dairy and many small processing plants were a few of the major drivers related to the climatic diversity. Natural resource location also contributed. The milling industry was important because of the favorable wheat growing conditions. The iron mining and forest related industries were important. When wheat diseases became a problem, the University contributed solutions. The taconite developments gave new life to the iron mining industry. Flax production was important for linseed oil for paints. General Mills and Pillsbury were the off shoots of the milling industry.

Education, research and service have always been important and the University was there to provide support in so many areas. The agricultural schools provided training for many of the future community agricultural leaders. The Extension service provided the basic inputs to 4H and the cooperative movements and other leadership roles. Minnesota was at one time an important leader in computer developments. The Mayo clinic remains a leader in Health management.

Minnesota, and the related Midwest were well known in the past for supplying industrious hard working personnel. That may have been partially related to the rural farm and small town background for much of the population. Most grew up in a working environment. They went to work with mom or dad every day learned what had to be done, and probably found solutions for problems with baling wire or string. Today’s service economy provides less opportunity for teaching by doing or following parental example through “a day at the office” with dad or mom.

Other examples can be shown regarding reasons for Minnesota’s past leadership in so many areas. Most are related to a type of “product” development. That may be a virtual material, service, leadership or something directly of value. Transportation may be important but was never the real driving force in Minnesota.

There is no question that finding the unique product that will drive Minnesota to the forefront again will be difficult. Corn and Soybeans have replaced much of the wheat in the state and many other states have more favorable conditions for production. At one time Minnesota provided most of the corn germ plasma for northern corn varieties. Now commercial companies are capable of those developments. The livestock industry and much of the agricultural enterprises are now concentrated in large commercial “business” operations whereas at one time many small widespread operations contributed to the economy.

Transportation systems do contribute to the economy but only to move people and products to and from the “engine” of the operations. The Golden Gophers were one of the main sport attractions in the state. The proliferation of professional sport activities has diluted the number of persons attending Gopher games and in some cases seemed to result in lower attendance at other events. However total attendance is higher resulting in transportation congestion at times. Just as with other business endeavors transportation is vital but it is not the driving force, it is the means to get to the location of the primary “engine”. Transportation will develop if there is a vital need for it but transportation will not develop a viable economy except for the transportation industry itself.

Rick Bishop (10) (10) (5)

Shari Prest (10) (4) (6)

Lyall Schwarzkopf (8) (10) (10)

I found the summary very telling. The Commissioner thinks things are going well and that most states have a disjointed system. How can the Civic Caucus propose a different plan, if even the Commissioner doesn't believe in such a plan? Maybe the Civic Caucus needs to do much homework with the Commissioner and others before it proposes changes.

Clarence Shallbetter (2) (9) (10)
A plan is much, much more than a wish list from every organization interested in moving people or freight or benefiting from these movements. What is the state vision and purpose in all of this? Does the state have a vision, such as what the federal government had originally when it made a commitment to the interstate freeway system? What is the state purpose in investing in city streets, township roads, bike trails, alleys, sidewalks, collector roads with little traffic, or transit services in off peak times? If providing transit services for those who cannot afford to own and operate an auto is a highly valued public service shouldn't it be service available throughout the state not just in a portion of the metropolitan area or at least be a voucher that enables eligible users to purchase the service from whoever will supply it? How does collecting the wish lists of organizations that supply roads, other facilities, or transportation services get more effective and efficient services developed? Where are the incentives?

Al Quie (10) (10) (10)

Kent Eklund (9) (9) (9)

Peter Hennessey

This level of detail belongs in a class on management in business school, not in an advisory policy statement. What justifies this level of micromanagement? Are the administrators of MnDOT so poorly prepared to do their job that they have to be micromanaged? What qualifies me, you and everyone participating in a discussion at this level to presume we have the right to tell them how to do their job? I don't have a degree in business or public administration; all I have is common sense. That tells me that yes, of course you involve "stakeholders," however you define them (I assume MN is not yet a dictatorship) of course you take into account both the start-up costs and the operating costs before you start a project, any project in any context, and of course you do only what you can afford. How you determine each of these things is at the management level, not at the policy level.

The discussion at this level should be limited to the speaker's point C2, the statewide transportation plan; that is, to specify the proper balance between people and freight, roads and air service and rail, hubs and spokes, safety and reliability and efficiency, etc. But at some point you have to let the professionals do their job to fill in the details.

Bill Frenzel (8) (10) (10)

Ray Schmitz (5) (7) (8)

Question 1: The problem is that you sit at the meeting and the universe of possibilities is unlimited and my knowledge of the possibilities is limited. It might be better of have in hand their proposals and ask for comment.

Question 2: Dreams are wonderful but reality is good.

Question 3: The difficulty is that all of the costs need to be factored in, for example a new road may have less expenses than a transit system unless the cost of the cars is taken into consideration.

Terry Stone (7) (10) (10)

Carolyn Ring (8) (9) (9)

Question 1: Recognizing they will each have their own agenda and working with them, but MNDOT having the final decision.

Question 2: To me. that's a given.

Question 3: Definitely, it is no good too create the means of transportation if it can't be funded in the future.

Allen Saeks (0) (8) (8)
Involving "stakeholders" in the process of preparing transportation plans will lead to the unfortunate result of these special interests injecting their views into the process through lobbying and otherwise. The process will not then lead to a reflective result that is in the best interests of the state or other lesser government districts. For example, safety is said to be a criteria of the ultimate plan. None of the "stakeholders" will necessarily be championing safety as a citizen group might do. There would be no role for citizens to participate in the process. Thus, the trucking industry might get its goals of longer and yet longer trucks with no consideration for the number of fatal and other serious accidents that trucks cause on MN highways. MnDOT would obviously "bend" to the trucking industry in the negotiations of MnDOT planning when there is no one with clout to argue for safety. It would seem that a Planning Body would be best to plan for what is best for the state and allow MnDOT to implement a plan that is not heavily influenced by the so-called stakeholders.

Bright Dornblaser (10) (0) (10)
I have concerns re improving mobility outstate by increasing roads as stated in the key components of the plans. Also the collaborative process while desirable does not identify how priorities will be set as inevitably they will. What happens if MDOT actually does set priorities and after hearings adopts a plan over likely objections? Any appeal mechanism? To the Governor? It would have been useful to have pressed with a question what if hoped for collaboration approach does not result in a common vision and more specifically on priorities what happens? Who will enforce and how?

Chris Brazelton (9) (10) (8)
Other concerns, not listed among the stakeholders, must also weigh in as the process unfolds, for example our environmental concerns. Certain modes of transportation may
be cheaper to build and operate, but may not fit into our environmental goals.

We need to look at what makes a mode of transportation successful, making sure it is user friendly and attractive. People commuting from the suburbs into the city don't want
to deal with local teens on the busses, or multiple stops, so express service is used where local service would not.

If we build high speed rail to take us across states or the continent, include a "ferry car" on the train that carries the passengers' vehicles to the next city.

Question 1: Collaboration is messy and very time-consuming, but necessary.

Question 2: Priorities for spending public dollars. Private investors can tap into the plans and speed up projects, where appropriate.

Question 3: No sense building something we can't afford to operate or maintain. We must always take into consideration the ongoing funding and user fees available.

Steve Alderson (8) (8) (8)
Both the questions below and the comment listed as number 19 in the discussion show an alarming lack if awareness about how MN/DOT already uses funding expectations as input to its planning and construction programming process. Adopting restricted construction and operation programs in response to limited funds takes up a lot of the planning staff energies at both the state and district level. The various district intergovernmental transportation advisory committees such as the Metropolitan Transportation Advisory Board are always aware of the limits to transportation funding. Federal guidelines require it. MN/DOT Central office controls the whole operation by setting district budgets in cooperation with district engineers on a continuing basis. Estimates of need are always impacted by wish lists and continually run up estimates beyond capacity to fund. More attention needs to be given to what actually makes it to implementation and what benefits are received from projects that do go forward. Then there will be a realization that MN/DOT and the regional planning agencies know what they are doing and are delivering benefits for the money that the legislature does provide.

Civic Caucus is not helping by joining the gnashing of teeth about how poorly we are organized or how inadequately we are producing. Minnesota has good transportation systems and a competent state transportation agency.

Tom Swain (5)(7) (10)


The Civic Caucus   is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization.   The Core participants include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and business. Click here  to see a short personal background of each.

   Verne C. Johnson, chair;  Lee Canning,  Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel, 
Paul Gilje,  Jim Hetland,  John Mooty,  Jim Olson,  Wayne Popham  and  John Rollwagen.  

The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
8301 Creekside Circle #920,   Bloomington, MN 55437.
Verne C. Johnson, chair, 952-835-4549,       Paul A. Gilje, coordinator, 952-890-5220.

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