A clash of priorities in Minnesota’s transportation policy

13 May 2024

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature took a bold step toward reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from transportation by passing a groundbreaking law. The statute requires major highway capacity expansion projects to be assessed for their impact on GHG emissions and vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Projects failing to conform to reduction targets would need to implement mitigation measures or be stopped.

To guide the implementation of this complex legislation, the law established the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impact Mitigation Working Group. Over seven months, this diverse group of transportation professionals and stakeholders delved into the challenges and opportunities of assessing and mitigating transportation emissions. Their efforts culminated in a comprehensive report to the Legislature, published in February, that offers insights and recommendations that could serve as a roadmap for other states pursuing similar goals.

Key takeaways from the working group include:

Collaboration is key

The group brought together representatives from state and local agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, and advocacy groups (such as MoveMinnesota). This diverse expertise was needed for understanding the implications of the law across different contexts and crafting recommendations that balanced various needs and constraints.

Statewide consistency matters

To effectively reduce emissions, the group recognized the need for consistent modeling tools, planning procedures and mitigation strategies across the state. They proposed a phased “maturity model” for implementation, allowing regions to start with existing capabilities while building toward a more integrated, multimodal approach over time.

Funding and support are critical

Assessing emissions impacts and implementing mitigations will require significant capacity building at all levels of government. The group recommended dedicated funding for modeling improvements, mitigation efforts, and incentives for regional plans that align with state emissions goals.

Flexibility and oversight go hand-in-hand

While emphasizing consistency, the group also acknowledged the need for flexibility to account for local contexts and emerging strategies. They suggested allowing additional mitigation categories to be approved by a technical oversight committee, ensuring a balance of adaptability and accountability.

Integration is the future

The group envisioned a long-term shift toward comprehensive, multimodal transportation planning that fully integrates emissions reduction, VMT reduction, and land use considerations. They recognized this would require changes not only in technical processes but also in institutional relationships and funding structures.

Despite the group’s progress, significant difficulties lie ahead. Balancing emissions reduction with other priorities like safety, securing buy-in from local governments, and managing technical complexities will require ongoing collaboration and refinement. A few contentious points that came up during the greenhouse gas mitigation working group meetings:

Exempting safety projects from the VMT and GHG assessment requirements. Some members felt safety projects should be exempt, while others argued safety considerations do not exempt the state from meeting GHG reduction goals.

Applying the assessment and mitigation requirements on a project-level basis versus a programmatic/statewide level. Many felt a statewide approach would be better, especially for Greater Minnesota, while the legislation currently requires a more project-level approach.

The feasibility and timeline of implementing the assessment requirements, developing travel demand models, and building technical capacity by the February 2025 effective date, especially in Greater Minnesota. Some advocated for delaying implementation.

Clearly defining what counts as a “capacity expansion project” subject to the rules, such as the extent to which interchange and grade separation projects are included.

Using trunk highway funds for GHG mitigation efforts. Some opposed diverting funds meant for highways and argued the Legislature needs to provide separate, dedicated mitigation funding.

How much emphasis to place on VMT reduction as a goal, with some arguing VMT reduction doesn’t make sense for Greater Minnesota.

Providing exemptions or delaying implementation in Greater Minnesota and rural areas due to lack of transit options and technical capacity compared to the Twin Cities metro.

Minnesota’s experience offers valuable lessons for other states grappling with transportation emissions. By bringing diverse stakeholders to the table, establishing a clear vision and committing to building long-term capacity, states can develop frameworks for assessing and mitigating the climate impacts of highway projects.

Mauricio Leon Mendez, the carbon reduction manager at Hennepin County, is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. His research explores the interplay between urban planning, transportation and climate policy.

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