Writer’s block: New generation would rather navigate screen

In terms of distance, I have a pretty short commute to work. That was a top priority for me when first moved to the Twin Cities and was job hunting.

Mandy Moran Froemming
Mandy Moran Froemming

I had absolutely no interest in wasting hours of my day on the road.

But there are days when it takes as long as 25 minutes to travel home those few miles. That’s when I wish I was back in college, sitting on a train with plenty of time to think and daydream.

Last Friday, as a member of ECM Publishers’ Editorial Board, our group had a chance to interview MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and Metropolitan Council Chairperson Susan Haigh. Transportation, funding and public transit dominated those discussions.

Zelle said the ultimate signal of freedom for a young person used to be a car. Now it’s a smart phone. And Millennials would rather spend their time on their smart phone than behind the wheel. I would tend to agree. While I’m a little old to be classified as a Millennial, young adults born between 1983 and 2000, I itch constantly for more information. I like a good road trip, but I’m happier in the passenger seat.

Public transportation can solve that, especially for commuters. I have been watching the developments of the Southwest light rail line with keen interest, mostly because I’m excited for the day light rail might makes its way north with the Bottineau line. When I moved to the Twin Cities, I was shocked there wasn’t a comprehensive train system in place. I feel like in the north metro there is a notion that public transportation is for people who are forced to use it. That they have no other choice. Maybe they don’t have a driver’s license or can’t afford to buy a car.

I even catch myself feeling bad for people waiting out in the cold or the wind or the rain waiting for the bus. I wonder if they are pitying me for the many thousands of dollars I spend on gas, insurance and vehicle ownership every year?

Yes, we’re fortunate to have Northstar Commuter Rail serving our communities, but it has been slower to catch on with commuters than anticipated, even with the high costs of gasoline. Northstar’s most successful runs come in the snowiest weather when driving commutes become horrifically slow, and for sporting and entertainment events. It’s obvious there are struggles with either the attitude about commuter rail, or the convenience of its service.

If you work traditional hours and have an easy connection with your workplace on the other end, Northstar fits the bill. But more of us are working odd and flexible schedules, or maybe want to stay downtown longer than allowed when the last train leaves downtown at 6:15 p.m. Or maybe we need to be able to leave work at a moment’s notice when day care calls and our toddler is running a fever. Whatever the reason, it would be prudent to figure out how to get over the hurdle, given the incredible investment that has been made in Northstar.

But perhaps the most shocking bit of information is that over the next 20 years, if as a state we were to do only the basic repairs to our roads and bridges, we would still be short more than $21 billion. That’s no new projects, just maintenance. To have an upgraded system that is considered competitive for economic development, that shortfall more than doubles to almost $55 billion, according to the state’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee. Yes, that’s billion, with a B.

Now what? Stories about public works projects, most often about road projects, dominate our newspapers. I can also tell you that, according to our website, road construction stories are among our most read pieces. It’s obvious when and where we drive and how it affects our day, is very important to us. But how are we going to pay for improving that experience?

Will you ante up to drive in a MnPass lane? Will you support paying more gas tax? Will you vote for state spending on public transportation projects? Because it is pretty clear the current arrangement is not going to solve our congestion problems, which not only affects the amount of time we spend in traffic but also where and how businesses choose to relocate and expand.

A competitive job market needs a transportation system to match. Over and over again we have heard that improvements to Highway 10, in particular at the Armstrong Boulevard interchange, are critical to growth of business and services.

Transportation is largely funded through user-pay systems like gas taxes, motor vehicle sales taxes and registrations. Anoka County has already shown its dislike for increasing taxes. Instead of doubling the state’s wheelage tax from $5 to $10, the board voted to scrap it completely, largely on the principle that a 100 percent tax increase is too much.

But here in the north metro we love our cars and hate congestion. It’s obvious we are deeply concerned about the condition and the capacity of our roads. What are we going to do about it?