The 2024 Minnesota state legislative session begins Monday, February 12, and will conclude in May. This session is a critically important opportunity to build on the progress made in 2023.
Working-class people should not have to take on debt and purchase a car to simply access their daily needs and efficiently move around their communities. We cannot continue to perpetuate infrastructure that sacrifices the health of many for the convenience of the privileged. Elected leaders cannot continue to ignore the existential threat of climate breakdown. Legislators cannot delay action. The upcoming 2024 House of Representatives election means that future control of the legislature is unclear. Now is the time for Minnesota legislators to deliver on campaign promises and pass legislation that advances a people-first transportation system that prioritizes climate, racial, and economic justice.
In addition to contacting your local legislators, we encourage you to share your priorities with the House and Senate Transportation Committee chairs, who have a major say on which legislation moves forward:
- House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein
- Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Dibble
Create a Cumulative Impacts Law for Transportation
Urban highway projects have a storied history rooted in systemic racism that continues to harm marginalized communities today, dividing and severely polluting minority and low-income neighborhoods at disproportionate rates.
Highways have many harmful health impacts, including increased rates of asthma, dementia, cancer, and stunted lung growth. They create “sacrifice zones,” where the poisoning of thousands is deemed an acceptable cost of accommodating high-speed car and truck traffic. Currently, few protections in Minnesota law require the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to prioritize public health, environmental justice, and racial equity when planning highway projects that run through designated environmental justice communities.
In 2023, the legislature passed a groundbreaking cumulative impacts law to protect marginalized communities from disproportionate exposure to pollutants. The law defines environmental justice areas and requires the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to conduct a rulemaking process to address the cumulative impacts of pollution during permitting processes for permitted facilities (i.e., a factory or trash incinerator).
However, this new law does not apply to transportation projects, leaving one of the biggest sources of environmental injustice unaddressed.
Legislators must address this issue this session in one of two ways:
- Expanding the existing cumulative impacts law to include major highway projects (as defined by project cost) that run through environmental justice communities.
- Creating a new regulation that requires the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to conduct a similar cumulative impacts process for major highway projects that run through environmental justice communities.
This law would add long-overdue protections for communities poisoned by transportation infrastructure. If it were determined that a MnDOT trunk highway project would have a disparate impact on surrounding residents, the agency would not be able to proceed until those impacts were remedied and a community benefits agreement was finalized.
Close the Greenhouse Gas Planning Law Loophole
Transportation is the state’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, and electric cars alone are not an adequate decarbonization solution. Major highway projects perpetuate car dependency and increase both vehicle miles traveled (or “VMT”) and emissions.
The 2023 transportation bill added new regulations that require MnDOT to assess the climate impacts of a highway project and perform mitigation measures. However, the law only applies if the project adds lanes. Projects that rebuild highways with the same number of lanes are exempt, even though they would cement climate and environmental harms for decades. Furthermore, the rule does not take effect until 2025 and applies only to projects that have not yet entered the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which includes planned projects over a four-year period. Many highway expansion projects are already in the STIP and won’t be impacted by the new law.
Legislators should amend the law to close the non-expansion loophole and require that the climate rule be applied to all major highway projects, not just those that add lanes. The loophole that delays implementation until 2025 should be removed, and the rule should be applied retroactively to all projects that have not begun construction once the implementation process is complete. In the midst of the warmest winter on record, state legislators must do everything they can to ensure that addressing climate breakdown is mandatory in all major highway projects—no exceptions.
Define Highway Purpose to Include All Modes of Transportation
Minnesota law requires that the Highway User Tax Distribution Fund be spent on “highway purposes”. The state’s trunk highway system takes various forms, from small-town main streets to large urban freeways, and serves all transportation modes, including people driving, walking, rolling, biking, and using public transit. However, historically, the vague definition of “highway purpose” has been narrowly defined to apply only to infrastructure that serves car and truck traffic, excluding other uses. This has resulted in abundant funding for expensive and environmentally destructive highway expansion projects and a shortage of funding for pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit infrastructure.
Legislators should clarify the definition of highway purpose to include the many ways that Minnesotans use the trunk highway system, including multimodal infrastructure for walking, biking, and public transit. This would be achieved by HF 2807 and SF 2935, which were introduced in 2023. This legal clarification would help advance a transportation system that works for Minnesotans of every race, age, ability, and income.
There is broad public support for such a change. 66% of respondents to a 2022 statewide poll would support a bill to “improve transportation options in Minnesota using funding from the state and federal government, which would otherwise go to highway expansion.”
Pass a Community-Preferred Alternative Act
Major transportation projects, both in the past and in the present, have displaced and segregated minority and low-income communities, contributing to economic, racial, and environmental inequality. Highway planners ignored the objections of impacted communities and bulldozed their neighborhoods.
Today, MnDOT is required to develop one or more design “alternatives” for major, federally-funded highway projects to fulfill requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). However, this requirement does not require MnDOT to select or even study solutions preferred by the communities directly affected by the project. A current example is the I-94/252 project, where MnDOT has continued to advance expansion options despite abundant and long-standing opposition from community members and local elected officials.
To ensure that the voices of impacted communities are heard and that all options for the projects are fairly studied, we are advocating for a "community preferred alternative" bill that would require MnDOT to study a project option if an impacted local government (i.e., the Brooklyn Center City Council) passes a resolution asking the department to do so. MnDOT solicits community input, but a requirement would codify a commitment to prioritize the desires of affected communities.
Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives introduced HB 5154, a similar bill that would require TxDOT to study “an alternative design for the project that has been approved by a vote of the governing body of a municipality or county that represents an affected local community; and the negative impacts to an affected local community from previous transportation projects.” Minnesota legislators should pass such a law this session.
Furthermore, the new law should include a requirement that MnDOT must obtain a favorable vote from a project’s policy advisory committee before moving forward with selecting a preferred alternative and beginning construction. For most major projects, MnDOT creates a policy advisory committee or PAC. The PAC comprises elected and appointed officials from impacted communities who provide decision direction. However, the PAC does not currently have formal decision-making authority for the project, and MnDOT can ignore their concerns. The Community Preferred Alternative Act would make community consent mandatory before major transportation projects can move forward.
Reform Twin Cities Traffic Modeling
For decades, Minnesota taxpayers have been forced to foot enormous bills for unnecessary highway and roadway expansions that fail in the projects’ stated goals. Current MnDOT and Metropolitan Council traffic models are inaccurate and overestimate the prevalence and permanence of automobile trips. Furthermore, traffic modeling has not been updated to reflect the dramatic shift in transportation behavior and remote work caused by COVID-19. As a result, traffic models and congestion projections are often used to justify pointless highway expansions and car-centric roadway designs. An example is MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council’s Twin Cities Highway Mobility Needs Analysis, which uses fraudulent modeling to justify spending billions on metro-area highway expansion over the next two decades.
Legislators must pass a law that directs MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council to update their traffic modeling practices to account for short-term (behavioral change) and long-term (land use change) effects and to model real-world, post-COVID travel patterns and accessibility rather than planning extra capacity for peak commute periods which no longer predictably exist. The update process should include a literature review of how travel behavior was impacted after previous projects, including those that expanded highways, removed highways, and where highways were temporarily closed. This session is an opportunity for Minnesota to set a nationwide example for new transportation modeling that integrates induced demand and its counterpart, reduced demand or “traffic evaporation”, into its analysis.
Regulate Heavy & Oversized Vehicles
Minnesota must address the pedestrian safety crisis by regulating heavy and oversized vehicles. Vehicles in America have rapidly become bigger and heavier. Automakers have prioritized SUV’s and trucks over smaller models due to their higher profit margin. All five of the most popular automobile models in Minnesota were SUVs, with three out of the five being pickup trucks. The increasingly large US vehicle fleet is a major contributor to a pedestrian safety crisis in America. In 2023, United States pedestrian deaths reached a 40-year high. Heavier vehicles also significantly worsen wear and tear on roads and increase particulate pollution from tires. Currently, Minnesota has no regulations to disincentivize the use of heavy or oversized vehicles.
The legislature must address this issue by modifying registration fees to account for vehicle weight and size. These regulations will incentivize the purchase of lighter and smaller vehicles, resulting in less roadway wear and tear, fewer pedestrian deaths, less pollution, and more affordable car options. The revenue from the registration fees would be redirected to the state’s Active Transportation and Safe Routes to School funds to support street safety improvements across the state. Exemptions to the new fee should be added for low-income registrants and vehicle owners with disabilities. Colorado and New York are among states considering a similar solution.
Create an Asphalt Art Pilot Program
Asphalt art is a proven solution for beautifying streets, reducing crashes, increasing walkability, and supporting local artists. Despite broad support for asphalt art from people who use and design streets, art within the public roadway has faced regulatory hurdles at the state and federal levels because of concerns about compliance with street design standards and guidance. These concerns have persisted despite a growing amount of research that supports the safety effectiveness of asphalt art.
For example, in 2023, Our Streets Minneapolis organized alongside Northside youth to ask the City of Minneapolis and MnDOT to install artwork crosswalks on a notoriously unsafe intersection on Olson Memorial Highway. MnDOT ignored the community’s request for artwork crosswalks, citing their internal policies while showing little desire to amend them to address ignored safety issues at the Van White & Olson intersection.
The state legislature should create an asphalt art pilot program, directing MnDOT to implement ten asphalt art projects on MnDOT roadways across the state, including on Olson Memorial Highway. The program would require the department to study the projects’ effectiveness on pedestrian safety and test which materials are best at withstanding Minnesota winters. In addition to studying durability and effectiveness, a pilot program is also an opportunity to expand partnerships with community groups and local artists.
Reform State Speed Limit Implementation & Lower the speed limit on Olson Memorial Highway
In Minnesota and across the country, speed limits tend to be set by the “85th percentile rule”, which states that speed limits should be set at or below the typical speed drivers travel on a given road. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it leads to perpetually higher speed limits over time.
Higher speed limits are proven to increase severe injury and death rates. A 2009 study found that increased speed limits across the US from 1995–2005 resulted in an increase in deaths by more than 3.2% (even higher when just considering interstates), a staggering toll when put into context: as a result of increased speed limits alone, 12,545 excess deaths and 36,583 injuries occurred.
Minnesota has dual pressures to increase speed limits–not only is the 85th percentile rule the recommended approach for traffic engineers, but Minnesota also increased speed limits on many roads in 2015 from 55 MPH to 60 MPH. The change, even opposed by the trucking industry at the time, made many roads less safe for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
As another example of Minnesota’s flawed approach to setting speed limits, MnDOT has long resisted community calls to lower the speed limit on Olson Memorial Highway, which is set at 40 MPH, though many drivers travel much faster. Olson Memorial Highway has long been a high-injury street, with numerous severe and deadly crashes over the past decade. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling 40 MPH has just a 15% chance of surviving, compared to a 95% chance of surviving if the vehicle is traveling 20 MPH.
The legislature should undo the 2015 change and return speed limits to 55 miles per hour. Furthermore, the legislature should follow the State of Colorado’s example and direct MnDOT to change the way that speed limits are set in the state, prioritizing safety and accessibility over the 85th percentile rule.
Finally, the legislature should direct the Minnesota Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit on the portion of Olson Memorial Highway within Minneapolis to 25 miles per hour, which is consistent with other arterial streets in Minneapolis, and to implement additional interim roadway design changes and safety improvements to support the reduced travel speeds and pedestrian safety.
Study Regional Bike-Share in the Twin Cities
Bike sharing is a critical part of the transportation system. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and ensures that residents have affordable first/last-mile travel options. Despite this need, the current privatized patchwork of bike-sharing in the Twin Cities inherently fails to provide affordable and equitable access to micro-mobility. Bike-share options are expensive and have spotty coverage areas, with little coordination across city boundaries. This was exacerbated by the closure of Nice Ride after 13 years.
Privatized bike sharing inherently fails to achieve the same levels of use that a public program could. Indeed, the major barriers to bike-share use—ubiquity, affordability, and equity–are all barriers that are reinforced by the presence of profit incentives.
The legislature should address this issue by directing the Metropolitan Council to study a publicly managed, regional bike-share program to serve Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and neighboring suburbs. This study would direct the Met Council to evaluate regional bike-share programs in other cities to help determine the potential cost and ensure best practices in implementation.
A Met Council-managed regional bike/scooter sharing program would provide a major benefit for the environment, the economy, and equity. A public bike-sharing program would increase transportation access across socioeconomic strata, while also allowing for increased transparency and public accountability on issues such as coverage areas and affordability. A Met Council-run bike-share program would ensure that bike-share seamlessly complements the transit system. Fare cards could be used to pay for bike-share. Bike-share stations would be placed near both busy stations and gaps in the transit system. A Met Council-run regional bike-share system would also ensure better coordination between neighboring cities, ensuring that a person can use bike-share to travel across city boundaries.