Sen. Scott Dibble Speaks Out on Transportation

Sen. D. Scott Dibble gave the following luncheon address on transportation and congestion pricing at the 13th International HOV/HOT Systems Conference in Minneapolis on September 8, 2008:

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I’d like to give you a little bit of background about what brought me to be so passionate about transportation. I first got my start in politics, “community organizing?, around basic issues of justice, fairness, access, civil and human rights. That quickly led me to fighting for basic common sense approach in the drive to expand I-35W through south Minneapolis and the southern suburbs…at a time when transit and LRT were dirty four letter words (likened to the great social engineering experiments of the Soviet regime).

Thousands of homes and dozens of small businesses were on the chopping block, all to save just a few minutes of commuter travel via auto at the peak, which would have evaporated by the time the road was opened. All of the pollution and social impacts were to be borne by Minneapolis residents, with no access and no benefit. Downtown Minneapolis, which was supposed to benefit, could not fit one more car on its streets, and the project was going to cost $1B…then the bulk of the agency’s for a whole year.

Surely there had to be a better way. Expensive new highways, congested as soon as they’re opened up, thousand of cars spewing out choking exhaust, people having to buy second and third cars for the family, old people and young people being stranded…something wasn’t working. We knew that people wanted transportation to be a net benefit, to serve much larger goals and aspirations. Transportation engineers building monuments to themselves was not good enough.

But what did people want? To get into buses and trains (even pay to do so) and give up the freedom and convenience of a “free? car trip? To pay a toll on a road between their home and work or school or the store? To move into the city, out the gorgeous and inexpensive 1.5 acre, 4 bedroom home they bought for $150,000? People running around with all of these great ideas, transit, demand management, congestion pricing, seemed like pointy headed Debbie Downers.

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To be sure, the concepts and ideas that support the innovations you are all working on and trying to advance are compelling, are vital to solving are vexing transportation and mobility challenges. Better use of existing investments in infrastructure, driving the external costs from society to the user, creating a more rational set of economic choices for individuals and businesses, making transportation subordinate to our greater goals, rather than have the transportation tail wag the dog.

Along the way we have spin off benefits … raising additional resources for transportation alternatives, better use of land and redevelopment, more livable communities, mobility for those stranded seniors, low wage workers, the disabled and youth, and on. Who could be against that? But, for better or for worse, having the best idea around is, in my estimation, only about 15 percent of the equation.

Elected officials are really not dunderheads, craven seekers of adulation, power and control over vast sums of
money. Most are actually earnest, hard working, wanting to do right by their constituents, wanting to both lead on ideas that are ahead of the curve and to represent the interests of constituents. Most have a different focus and expertise than the one you have, so you are competing for their time and attention. And when you’re bringing an idea that might seem to be ahead of its time, upsetting the proverbial apple cart…it is up to you to be sure that the ground has been prepared so the idea can be planted, grown and ripened. [big on metaphors]

Some might think that my role as a legislator is fairly straightforward – get a good idea, introduce a bill, present it through the committee process, bring it up on the floor for a vote, send it to the Governor for signature. Along the way have a few conversations with my colleagues and ask some regular people to show up and testify. Voila, good things happen, justice prevails!

As the sophisticated people in this room well know, my role actually comes somewhere near the end of a very long, very complicated and iterative chain of events. Before we’re ever ready for the prime time at the Capitol, squadrons of regular people have been asked to join the cause, other levels of government have made important policy shifts, private interests and businesses have made changes to their internal policies, the media has been engaged, your mom and dad have decided the idea is great, or at least worth trying out. Every sector of Minnesota life has been touched, organized, affected in some way – education, legal, social services, business, faith community, media, government, political parties, and on. You need to decide where you come in, what part you play: as a convenor, a leader, do you implement the new activity?

If we profess to really be for something, a high minded ideal or principle, we actually have a moral imperative to go about all of the practical steps to bring about its realization. It is not good enough to be right on the facts and own the so-called moral high ground and sit up there sneering or complaining about all of the know nothings who don’t get it. It really is actually pretty lazy and a cop out.

Also key to change are all of the tasks and activities involved in influencing the large systems that permeate our lives, our culture, our society, our political climate and our government. Extremely complex and varied, those actions involve a lot of people, a lot of expertise and a lot of money. It also requires untold quantities of persistence, diligence and coordination. No one person, no one organization can solely take that challenge on. There is much to be done, plenty to go around.

One of the best examples I can think of is the work that has been done right here in Minnesota by none other than our own Lee Munnich and the University of Minnesota – The Humphrey Institute and the Center for Transportation Studies. Lee, of course, has the benefit of having been a practitioner of the finer arts of policy implementation as an elected official.

Converting the I-394 HOV lanes to HOT lanes, which has now given rise to the Urban Partnership Agreement innovations on I-35W and Cedar Avenue, was the result of research, conversation, persuasion, patience, collaboration. Public opinion was well researched, best practices, a community based steering committee was formed, earned and paid media was employed. It took patience and diligence over a number of years. It is a great story to tell and I hope you’ve had some time to really examine it as a case study during this conference.

By the way, I believe all of this is not a bad thing, and in fact, makes our work more fun and more interesting. Creating change in this way causes more buy in, allows for the improvement of an idea, forces the setting of priorities, increases the level of accountability for results, ensures that larger principles are in play, builds in greater sustainability, creates and climate for broader application of the larger ideas and on.

Again, thank you for giving me the honor of sharing some of my thoughts with you. Let me take this opportunity to commend you on a great conference and to thank you for all of the hard work you do to help make our communities better.

Senator D. Scott Dibble, Chair-Minnesota Senate Transit Subcommittee
Luncheon Address
13th International HOV/HOT Systems Conference
Partnerships for Innovation
Minneapolis, Minnesota
September 8, 2008

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs