Connecting state and local government leaders
The law is dedicated to improving roads, but requires that all highway expansion projects meet the state’s goal of driving down greenhouse gas emissions.
Minnesota lawmakers this year did not just pass a huge increase in transportation funding. They also changed the rules on how highway money could be spent, requiring that expansion projects help the state achieve its goals of reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
The newly empowered Democratic majorities in the Minnesota Legislature approved nearly $9 billion more in spending on roads, bridges and transit infrastructure.
Most of that money is dedicated toward improving roads, but legislators added conditions on highway expansions. Those improvements to major roads have to help the state reduce greenhouse gas pollution and the amount that average Minnesotans drive. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution both nationally and in Minnesota.
“This is going to drive a new way of thinking about how to solve mobility challenges and safety challenges,” said Sam Rockwell, the executive director of Move Minnesota, a group that advocates for more transit and active transportation options.
Rockwell and others worked with advocates from Colorado to help develop the plan. Under a 2021 law, Colorado transportation agencies must consider how new projects will affect greenhouse gas pollution.
The policy changes were more straightforward in Minnesota than they might have been in other states, Rockwell said, because Minnesota committed last year to reducing greenhouse gases 50% by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050. The Minnesota Department of Transportation adopted a goal reducing the number of miles driven per person in the state by 14% by 2040.
“The law that passed, at its highest form, is just an accountability law to deliver on both of those policies,” he said. “So often we have policies that sit on paper and there’s not really a plan for how to get them done. This was about saying, ‘We have these policies, we have to get them done.’”
Highway expansion projects, including interchange upgrades and grade separations, must be evaluated before construction to see if they comply with the state’s goals, in five-year intervals, over the next 20 years. If the project doesn’t help achieve those goals, the agency leading the construction effort has three choices: modify the proposed project; link it with other projects that will together meet the goals; or scrap the project completely.
The idea of adding those checkpoints, Rockwell said, is to make sure that planners consider the long-term effects of larger highways. “We know just from looking at highway expansion projects that, yes, things flow faster for a little while, and then there’s more demand, and then you’re back where you started,” he said.
But Steve Bot, the city administrator and public works director of the city of St. Michael, who was active in negotiations over the bill said it is still unclear how the new requirements will change the types of construction that’s allowed.
“We’re kind of happy to do our part and realize transportation projects can have a big impact on greenhouse gases … but the fact that they also put VMT [vehicle miles traveled] in there is highly concerning,” he said.
Bot pointed to a plan to build interchanges near the National Sports Center in Blaine, north of Minneapolis. The facility hosts soccer tournaments and draws a “massive amount of congestion,” he said. Replacing stoplights with interchanges would help traffic flow and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. But under the new law, he said, the expansion would likely not get approved.
“But, of course, the VMT increases. You want to do these expansion improvement projects to get people off the local roads and bring them onto the highways and move traffic so a project like that would be at risk,” he said.
Bot said he worried that the law was “just intended to kill capacity projects.” The Twin Cities region had tried to limit highway expansions a decade ago but found that approach didn’t work in many areas.
“There’s a theory that we're going to choke everybody off in their cars, so that they’re going to have to use transit,” he said. “The reality is that just doesn't happen. People still are going to use their cars. And, from a local perspective, where do they go when they can’t get around on the freeway? They go to the local system, where they’re taking all the back roads and causing accidents.”
Bot raised other concerns, as well. He worried that the new rules would make it harder to build improvements that increase safety. He questioned why moving freight was included in the amount of driving that the state is trying to reduce. And Bot said rural areas would have a hard time meeting goals to reduce driving.
The new law also addresses a frequent frustration of transportation professionals: Local governments often complain about the size of roads, but they allow or encourage land use that requires people to take their cars more often.
In the Twin Cities area, where more than half of Minnesota residents live, the law specifically calls for climate considerations in land-use planning. Lawmakers charged the Metropolitan Council, the metro area’s planning organization, with including the climate and driving-reduction goals in its regional planning.
Local jurisdictions will now have to make sure their zoning and land-use regulations comply with that plan. They have to include inventories of their emissions and identify ways that they are going to try to drive down that pollution, especially the emissions that come from transportation.
“It’s one thing to say: Don’t expand a particular highway. But we have to be thinking both about transportation’s impact on land use, but also land use’s impact on transportation,” Rockwell said. “We’re developing significant exurban sprawl that’s going to drive the need for highway expansion. If we say we can’t expand highways, it just creates a mess.”
Lisa Barajas, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council’s community development division, said the organization has been working for a decade to help the local communities in that area improve their climate resilience. The agency offers local governments a regional inventory of emissions that’s jurisdiction-specific, so local officials can look at their emissions profile.
“It’s not just confined to cities that have a larger staff team—like Minneapolis or St. Paul—that have a capacity to do that,” she said. The council is also developing a scenario-planning tool that will model how much communities can reduce their greenhouse gas pollution, showing how much benefit they can see from, for example, expanding transit or building more bike infrastructure.
The council has many kinds of incentives to help communities match their land-use regulations with the state’s plans, but it also has indirect ways of enforcing those goals, too. The council, for example, can force communities that are not complying with the regional plans for wastewater and transit—both of which can depend on density—to comply, Barajas said.
Rockwell said the new law could have far-reaching effects.
“These are necessary actions for the climate, but they are also really, really beneficial across a whole bunch of different kind of parts of our society and economy,” he said, citing rising traffic fatalities, health impacts from tailpipe emissions, pollution from the wear and tear of brakes and tires that will continue even as electric vehicles replace gas-powered one. “There is a benefit across a variety of sectors.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.