Do Minnesotans See Public Transit as a Benefit or Boondoggle?

My commute to work today involved numerous sightings of orange construction barrels, reminding me the state’s transportation woes are not disappearing any time soon. Nor is the debate on how Minnesota should spend its transportation dollars.

Do Minnesotans believe transportation funding should be used to build more transit including light rail and bike lanes or improve roads, highways, and bridges?

It seems to depend on how the question is framed.

According to poll results from Public Opinion Strategies, 74 percent of Minnesota voters expressed support for “the state of Minnesota making additional investments in expanding and improving public transit, including buses, trains and light rail.” (Support was across party lines but higher among DFL voters: 92 percent of DFLers, 72 percent of Independents, and 54 percent of GOP voters.)

If this question was asked in a “yes/no” format (it is not clear how the question was presented), it is not surprising Minnesotans voiced support for transit improvements over none at all.

But when asked for their preference on where to spend taxpayer dollars, 77 percent of Minnesotans would rather have their “tax dollars go to building and improving roads, highways, and bridges” over “developing and building light rail and bicycle lanes,” according to poll results from Meeting Street Research. (Support was across party lines: 88 percent of GOP voters, 71 percent of Independents, 71 percent of DFLers.)

Whenever a choice is made, something is given up (you know the saying: “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too”). Economists call this the “opportunity cost,” or the value of the best alternative given up. Minnesotans prefer automobile transit to light rail or bike transit even though it costs them higher gas prices, gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, and maintenance costs because there is an opportunity cost of time attached to the light rail/bike lane alternative. Typically, there are three phases for transit travel: getting from your home to your ride, riding, and getting from your ride to work. Auto travel tends to be fastest for all three phases, even with traffic congestion (plus, light rail and bike lanes do not alleviate traffic congestion as the car is still the chief road authority).

We need to focus on improving roads and highways, and Minnesotans agree.

Note: Each poll was conducted by a nationally known pollster in August 2018 and surveyed 500 registered Minnesota voters throughout the state and across party lines.