Conservative 'think tank' uses suspect study to blame Dayton, Met Council for traffic

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"Roads with more lanes are really the only proven way to reduce congestion," says Center of the American Experiment spokesperson Peter Nelson, a claim unsupported by transportation experts.

One billboard at the 35W and I-494 interchange asks rhetorically: "Stuck in traffic?" Six more digital signs sprinkled amongst Twin Cities' freeways answer: "Blame Dayton's Met Council."

The towering signage comes courtesy of the Center of the American Experiment, a right-wing advocacy group that fancies itself a think tank. Its latest propaganda push is to sway Minnesotans to rally against Gov. Mark Dayton's spending on public transit.

"Twin Cities traffic congestion has reached the crisis point with metro area drivers stuck in traffic 47 hours per year on average compared to 12 hours in 1982," writes the Center's Tom Steward. "But instead of focusing on comprehensive congestion relief, the state agencies responsible for the transportation system — the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT–pursue policies that make the problem worse.…" 

The conservative advocacy group, based in Golden Valley, argues it's no accident that choked metro roads coincide with the administration pouring more money into light rail. 

The billboards, in addition to radio spots on stations like WCCO, KFAN, and K102, come on the heels of the Center's recently released report "Twin Cities Traffic Congestion: It's No Accident."

The 24-page document is authored by Randal O'Toole of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, a longtime light rail opponent. What it paid O'Toole to draft the report, Steward isn't saying. He will say the Center is bankrolling "the [entire] public information campaign… through contributions [the Center] gets [from supporters]."  

According to the report, which hasn't received much credence from mainstream conservatives, Dayton and the Met Council are both culpable. The Council, it's argued, benefits from securing more transportation funds, while Dayton does its bidding. 

As an example, the report points to the Council’s 2040 plan, which "calls for spending $6.9 billion in state and regional funds on transit capital improvements and only $700 million in state funds on increasing road capacities."

"Roads with more lanes are really the only proven way to reduce congestion and train transit in Minnesota has increased congestion every time we've done it," says Center spokesperson Peter Nelson. "It is not part of the solution. It's part of the problem." 

But Dr. Yingling Fan isn't finding much merit in the study. An expert in urban land use, growth management, and transit improvement at the University of Minnesota, Fan says the report is packaged like academic research, though it hasn't been reviewed by any of his peers.   

Curiously enough, O'Toole holds bachelor's degrees in forestry management and geology, not urban planning.

There is no direct relationship between transit spending and congestion, Fan says: "Traffic congestion is just a symptom. Urban form [a.k.a. land use] is the true culprit, and you cannot apply transportation answers to problems about how land is used and where and how people live."

Madeline Brozen, associate director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation, also debunked the report in a Star Tribune editorial

Met Council spokesperson John Schadl likewise pans the study. A more fair and recent look at history shows congestion levels over the past 15 years have stayed about the same, despite the fact "the number of daily commuters has gone up by 25 to 30 percent."

Schadl also dismisses the Center's conflict-of-interest claim by noting the report "fails to point out that most transit funding cannot be spent on roads, and road funding cannot be spent on transit. 

"Of the $84 billion that this region will spend on roadways and transit between now and 2040, only $2.2 billion or 3 percent of that funding can be flexed between roads and transit. Severely curtailing transit investments will not free up more funding for roads. It will simply ensure that people do not have the option of using transit if they want to." 

 


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