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Sidewalk replacement contributes to Minneapolis tree loss

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sidewalk.jpgLast June a windstorm toppled about 1,800 trees in Minneapolis. Many of the fallen trees were in boulevards (the area between sidewalks and streets) rather than in yards. This raised concerns that recent sidewalk replacement—and resulting severed tree roots—had been a factor.

To better understand the higher-than-normal losses, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) turned to the U’s Urban Forestry Outreach, Research and Extension lab. “The MPRB Forestry Department has partnered with the University of Minnesota for years,” says Ralph Sievert, MPRB forestry director. “When this study presented itself, we did not hesitate to ask the lab to participate.”

Led by forestry department professor Gary Johnson, the lab studied damaged and undamaged trees along the storm’s path. The data set included 3,076 trees, of which 367 were total failures (tipped or partially tipped) due to the storm.

“The major finding is that replacing the sidewalk increased the odds of root failure by 2.24 times,” Johnson says. For example, when no replacement work was done, the average linden had a 10.6 percent chance of root failure; with sidewalk replacement, this increased to 21.0 percent.

When combined with replacement work, tree species was also a significant factor. Linden trees were most likely to fail, followed by ash, maple, and elm. “Essentially, when replacement work was done near any one of these trees, the rate of failures more than doubled,” Johnson says.

“Now we have a great opportunity to make improvements,” Sievert says. “I’m anticipating this leading to safer, healthier trees with fewer instances of infrastructure damage.”

Read the full article in the June issue of Catalyst.

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Funding the nation’s transportation system using a per-gallon fuel tax worked well for decades. Now, however, the system is under severe strain, says Cornell University's Rick Geddes. Policies encourage motorists to drive more efficient vehicles, and people seem to be driving less. The fuel tax is not indexed to inflation, and its purchasing power has declined by about a third. Combined, these factors spell decreasing revenues just as investment needs are rising for our aging infrastructure.

Economists widely agree that switching to a system that charges per unit used—similar to how heat and electricity are paid for—is the best solution. The problem, Geddes says, is that a mileage-based user fee system "currently is a political non-starter." Geddes, a professor of policy analysis, developed a new approach for road pricing that he believes will make it more appealing: an investment public-private partnership (IP3) feeding a public trust fund. Geddes described the approach at the February 12 CTS Winter Luncheon in Minneapolis.

The IP3 generates large, upfront concession payments that monetize asset value through public-private leases. All or part of the concession fee would be paid into a permanent fund—a type of public trust fund—to capitalize it. "If invested wisely, the fund generates a dividend forever to all citizen-owners of the transportation facility," he said. The remainder of the fund could be used to develop road projects and alternatives such as transit.

U.S. interstates have enormous value, and the country's well-known system of property rights and contracting enforcement make the U.S. market extremely appealing for investors.

Geddes said that moving from theory to implementation would involve addressing a number of issues, such as subsidizing less marketable rural roads, sharing revenues across jurisdictions, and determining eligibility for dividends.

Read the full article in the March issue of Catalyst.

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Photo: SRF Consulting Group, Inc.

There’s broad agreement that the U.S. transportation system cannot continue to be funded with existing financing and revenue-generation methods. What’s unclear, however, is how to pay for highway projects in the future. The current transportation funding system emphasizes user fees, but there is growing interest in alternative funding strategies. One promising strategy is value capture, which aims to recover the value of benefits received by property owners and developers as a result of infrastructure improvements.

In recent years, University of Minnesota researchers have helped lead the way in value capture research with a series of reports identifying value capture strategies. In a newly published study, the research team applied their previous work to a real-world scenario, with impressive results.

The new research, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, focused on the planned development of Trunk Highway 610 (TH 610) in Maple Grove, Minnesota—a stretch of planned state highway delayed for years by state transportation funding shortages. Researchers set out to discover how the value of the enhanced accessibility provided by the planned improvements could be predicted and captured to help fund the project’s completion.

To accomplish their goal, researchers first defined a study area of about 10 square miles surrounding the unfinished highway segment. Then, they modeled property values based on five factors using parcel-level data. This model was designed to isolate the so-called “highway premium” by controlling for other factors that affect land value including water views, open space, railroads, transit stops, and existing highway exits. Using this model, researchers found significant evidence that the completion of the highway could lead to an over $17 million increase in property value.

Researchers expect these findings to have significant benefits for the TH 610 project and beyond.

Read the full article in the March issue of Catalyst.

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In a keynote address at the American Public Works Association-Minnesota Chapter fall conference, U of M civil engineering professor Roberto Ballerini asserted that the nation's security depends on its infrastructure.

At one time, the United States had an infrastructure second to none, Ballerini continued. Today, that once-great infrastructure is deteriorating. "Hundreds of thousands of bridges are functionally obsolete... this is mediocrity, and the biggest problem with mediocrity is that people get used to it and think it's okay." How have we let this happen, he asked, when Americans are the richest they have ever been?

From 1982 to 2013, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the United States expanded from $3 trillion to $14 trillion, explained Ballerini. "In 1982, we spent about 4 percent of our GDP on infrastructure investment, but in 2013 our infrastructure investment was less than 2 percent of the GDP. China, one of our biggest [economic] competitors...spends around 10 percent of its GDP on infrastructure." For each year we wait to invest in our infrastructure, he added, the cost to improve goes up.

The solution comes down to prioritizing and long-term planning, Ballerini said. "Building infrastructure provides a positive return on investment
for our nation. It creates jobs and technical expertise."

Minnesota Representative Alice Hausman is no stranger to the roadblocks that have recently hindered infrastructure funding in Minnesota. Last year, she penned an unsuccessful $800 million bonding bill that contained several infrastructure projects around the state.

Hausman said she faced opposition from colleagues that thought too many of the projects were focused on the metro area. Furthermore, she explained, many metro-area residents believe the bulk of their taxes are spent funding projects in Greater Minnesota.

In the past, infrastructure was not a partisan issue because everyone understood the need, Hausman continued, but now infrastructure funding has become very politicized.

"There were visionaries and courageous leaders in the past," Hausman concluded. "Somehow we have to find that political will once again to get across all of the artificial boundaries and come together to invest responsibly in infrastructure."

Read the full article in the Winter 2014 issue of the LTAP Exchange.

Fuel taxes: a competitive advantage for Minnesota's economy

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By Kevin McCarthy

Currently the topic of roads and infrastructure is being scrutinized more than ever. MnDOT has just released their 20-year Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan, known as MnSHIP. According to the Star Tribune, the plan calls for $30 billion in spending over the next 20 years, but estimates funding of only $18 billion, a shortfall of $12 billion, or about $600 million a year. While most of us think about how congestion and roads affect our daily commute, I think it’s important to also understand how they affect our competitiveness. Simply put, the more expensive it is to move product in or out of a manufacturing facility, the less competitive that facility is. When a facility is less competitive, there are fewer jobs, which can in turn reduce our growth as a state. So do we have a real need to invest in roads?

First, it may help to understand just how much of what we consume moves on roads. In 2012, according to a federal report, 73% of all goods moved by value and 70% by weight were moved by truck. This number has held relatively constant over the years and is similar to the numbers that the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) has put out in its annual state of logistics report for the last 20 years. Not only is trucking the dominant way goods are moved, but with 84.9% of all truck movements traveling less than 500 miles, road quality becomes an inherently local and regional problem. So clearly roads do and will play a significant role in the movement of goods.

How does our spending compare with the rest of the world?

The Economist reported that the U.S. spends 2.4% of GDP on transportation. This compares to Europe’s investment of 5% and China's investment of 9% of GDP. Our current level of funding for transportation infrastructure is significantly below its peak of 5% in the early 1960s. If we wish to continue to have the transportation infrastructure we need to stay competitive in a world market, we must address our inability to fund transportation infrastructure. This lack of funding is directly related to the lack of growth in user fees—most notably, the federal fuel tax, which has not changed in 20 years. In Minnesota, we have increased our user fees, but not at a rate that keeps up with inflation. But why user fees? Why not just pay for infrastructure out of the general tax base? There are several reasons:

  • Using the general tax base is likely not fair. It could force competitors of trucking companies to invest in infrastructure that would make them less competitive.
  • If you don’t use it, you don’t pay for it. Unlike a general tax, you can avoid paying a user fee by simply not using the roads.
  •  It could discourage road use. That’s right. By making road use more expensive, it gives shippers an incentive to be more efficient in their movement of goods. It could also discourage personal travel and make mass transit a more viable option.
  • It’s green. The better the mileage a vehicle gets, the less tax you pay.
  • It’s extremely efficient.
  • It’s acceptable to the business community and to the trucking community. When was the last time you heard the Chamber of Commerce suggest that increasing a tax or user fee was a good thing?

Want to learn more about how fuel taxes work? I’d suggest checking out the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Want to learn more about our transportation infrastructure needs? Visit the U. S. Chamber of Commerce’s site on the transportation performance index.

Kevin McCarthy is Director of Consulting Services at C.H. Robinson, and a member of the CTS Executive Committee.

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Center for Transportation Studies

University of Minnesota

200 Transportation & Safety Building

511 Washington Ave SE

Minneapolis, MN 55455

Phone: 612-626-1077

Fax: 612-625-6381

E-mail: cts@umn.edu

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