A Good Debate: Beyond Gridlock


Winter 2018

Each quarterly issue of Citizens League Voice will feature a section that involves bringing people together to share their differing opinions on a timely issue.

We started with Just the Facts, designed to provide objective context for a specific question or area of disagreement. That was followed by Opening Arguments, written by policymakers, academics, and engaged community members representing a wide range of opinion and expertise.

Now, a Cross-Exam of each contributor. Conducted by the editors, this is an effort to further explore the nuance of each argument and provide a model for thoughtful questioning.


Questions for Laura Monn Ginsburg

The People’s Roads, Rails, and Robots


Anticipatory governance ensures equitable access to free-market innovations.

  • The way people move around is changing rapidly.
  • A statewide transit plan requires institutional foresight.
  • Private enterprise is primarily accountable to the bottom line.
  • Good government defines outcomes and avoids disruption.
  • Entrepreneurs are appropriately fast. Elected officials are necessarily slow.
Q: Is it your position that affordable transit is a right?
LMG: Yes. It’s especially essential given our climate and the sorts of businesses we want to stay in the area. There are great entry-level jobs in Eden Prairie and Maple Grove, for instance. But it’s not always easy to take advantage of these opportunities if you don’t have a vehicle or a person that can reliably take you from A to B. So yes, in order to stay competitive and for the government to truly support a thriving community, it needs to be treated as an essential service. And while I know there are people who would disagree with me, I’d want to know why they don’t think everyone deserves access to the same opportunities.
Q: Given how divided the state legislature is on mobility issues, isn’t expecting compromise in time to create a statewide plan unrealistic?

I think that too often the word inefficient is used as a pejorative term for due process. It’s important to take time for assessment and feedback and listening.”

LMG: I am an eternal optimist, so I do believe there are ways to come together. I’m especially encouraged by what’s happening in states like Utah, Texas, and Indiana, which have very Republican-heavy state legislatures. They are funding big, ambitious, expensive transit projects. And they aren’t always expecting to recoup their investments, because they know it’s good for business, good for the economy, and you are looking for ways to attract and maintain workers. I think that is my biggest bellwether of hope: seeing that maybe there are different ways to approach the discussion that would be compelling to a broad range of people.
Q: How do you respond to the argument that the free market is more nimble, innovative, and efficient than the government?

LMG: I can’t disagree that the free market in many ways is inherently more efficient. But I think that too often the word inefficient is used as a pejorative term for due process. It’s important to take time for assessment and feedback and listening, as opposed to moving as fast as you can to find the best thing in the heat of the moment. The free market ultimately wants to sell you something.

The government is better situated to consider how something will affect everyone and everything. They have to think about things like land use, accessibility issues, equity issues, and optimizing opportunities for the end user. Companies are also very much rooted in the here and now, and what’s the next quarter, and what’s the next two quarters, and how much do we need to sell to meet our goals. Government planning allows for longer-term considerations.

Q: There is a growing sense that trains and other “big-box” mobility solutions will be made obsolete by driverless cars. If that technology were destined to move us, wouldn’t private enterprise be the best driver?

LMG: Self-driving cars are a fantastic technology, with great potential to supplement systems, but for me transit is also about environmental efficiency. And having more cars on the road to get people from their beginning-to-end destinations, instead of moving them to and from bus or train routes, doesn’t seem very realistic or make much economic sense. These cars are far from a panacea when it comes to affordability, and I fail to see how individual vehicles are going to address the needs of people whose voices are often not at the table.

The other thing is that these technologies are always changing, because the free market is always innovating, which is why we need the principles of anticipatory government in place. It’s one thing if another Uber or Lyft competitor comes on the market, struggles, and maybe doesn’t stick around. But can we gamble with subjecting our entire market to that kind of uncertainty? Do we really want to say: “Well, you might not always be here, and there’s no requirement that you provide affordable service to a broad constituency, but you’re going to be a faster solution”? I just don’t think that’s good policy.

Questions for Randal O’Toole

Movement in the Marketplace


Privatization is the most equitable way to move people efficiently and affordably.

  • Fifty years ago, buses and trains were private and profitable.
  • Subsidized public systems increase costs and decrease usage.
  • Private systems thrive where customer need is greatest.
  • Government contracts are prone to waste and political corruption.
  • Innovation is most effective when unfettered by regulation.
Q: What role, if any, should government play in ensuring that people can move around?

RO: Only about 1 or 2 percent of the populace is going to ride transit to work. So even if you figure out a way to increase that a little bit, you’re not going to be helping a lot of people. You should take that money and relieve the gridlock, relieve the congestion, so that people can get to work without facing congestion. Not just people who are willing to ride transit, but everybody. This is the problem: We’re being forced to see this as transit versus highways. And we should see it as, What’s the most cost-effective way of relieving congestion? And the answer is never going to be transit. The answer is going to be things like coordinating traffic signals, taking care of bottlenecks, occasionally adding lanes, and using things like [express] lanes, which are already being used on some highways in the Twin Cities area. There are a lot of different ways of relieving congestion that work. Transit is not one of them.

Q: One concern is that there’s a spatial disconnect between where jobs are and where people live. Don’t trains, buses, and other forms of public transit make it easier to attract and retain employees?

RO: Well, 100 years ago half the urban jobs in the country were located in a few job centers, mainly big-city downtowns—like Minneapolis and St. Paul—and transit worked because you could take people from dense residential areas to even denser job centers pretty easily. Since then, though, jobs have spread out. Today, only about 8 percent of jobs are located in big-city downtowns, and only about 20 percent more jobs are located in other job centers. The rest of the jobs are finely spread out across the landscape. So, instead of saying, “OK, we need to have small-box transit that will take people to these jobs that are finely spread out across the landscape,” transit agencies have developed big-box transit because it looks pretty. And in order to make it all work, we then try to force jobs back downtown or into other major job centers. Wait a minute. Those jobs are not going to go back downtown, they’re not going to go into major job centers, and so you’re building the wrong kind of transit for the cities that we have today.
Q: What incentive does the free market have to provide affordable service to people in need?

RO: What’s happened is that transit once was justified based on providing a service for people who couldn’t drive, and there aren’t very many of those people anymore. So now transit is justified based on getting people who can drive out of their cars, and that’s a lot more expensive. If we want to provide mobility for people who can’t afford a car, the most effective way of doing that, by far, would be to give them a low-interest loan so they can buy their first used car. It turns out the data show that getting an unemployed person a car is more likely to help them get and keep a job than getting them a high school diploma if they don’t have a high school diploma.

Q: If driverless cars become the norm, though, won’t that sort of technology price people out of the market?

RO: Here’s the thing: Henry Ford figured out that there’s a bigger market of people who don’t have a lot of money than there is of people who are really rich, and so up until Henry Ford’s Model Ts, most cars were made for the very rich. As of 1913, only about 4 percent of American families had a car. Henry Ford started making cars really cheap and he became a billionaire. By 1927, over half of American families had a car, and most of them were Model Ts. So, the market works for poor people much better than the political system, because the political system is dependent on who has the political power, and guess who has the political power? Wealthy people. So, you’re going to be much better off if you’re low-to-moderate income if you’re dealing in a market system than if you’re dealing in a political system.

“Getting an unemployed person a car is more likely to help them get and keep a job than getting them a high school diploma.”

Questions for Mary Liz Holberg

Bridge Building 101


Politics as usual guarantees gridlock on our roads and at the state legislature.

  • Battles over buses and light rail have polarized lawmakers.
  • Mobility issues affect everyone in Minnesota.
  • Transit advocates need to consider performance standards.
  • Transit skeptics need to participate in finding solutions.
  • Both sides must think outside the lines and find common ground.
Q: Is it fair that many might lump you in the “anti-transit” camp because, as a rule, you haven’t supported rail?

MLH: I believe we should invest in the most cost-effective options to get the job done. I’ve been accused of being anti-rail and anti-transit, because that’s easy for people to do. But I think that in general, and historically, Republicans in Minnesota have been termed anti-transit and not given credit for their support of bus investments. I think the point your question is missing, though, is that I don’t believe you can separate transit from other modes of transportation. In other words, transit is about roads, too. So, if you totally segment the discussion and only talk about other forms of transit besides cars, then you’re leaving a lot of effective solutions out of the discussion.

Q: Have you ever seen an issue involving something so many see as a public utility become this divisive?

“In virtually every other funding area, different interest groups take what they can get when they can get it and come back and fight another day.”

MLH: No. In virtually every other funding area, different interest groups take what they can get when they can get it and come back and fight another day. And so, under one administration roads might do better, under the next trains might be better. But everything has been so hard fought that it just feels like every round has made things worse. In part I think that’s a reflection that funding levels in general are constrained. Funding for roads and transit has been lacking so long that it’s kind of like gathering around a watering hole: how the animals look at each other changes as the watering hole gets smaller. And everybody kind of feels like they have to go out for their own when there’s not enough to go around for everybody.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions each side has of the other?

MLH: I get the sense that the transit supporters feel like the roads folks, for lack of a better term, don’t recognize the parts of the population that need transit systems to conduct their daily lives, that there’s no empathy or sympathy for that portion of the population that depends on transit. A misconception from the other end of the spectrum is that all transit is a waste of money. That somehow if you just took the money being spent on construction salaries you could buy everybody a car. I also think there’s tension around rail-lines-as-economic-development-tools versus transportation infrastructure. From a conservative point of view it can seem like another government subsidy, and you would have a tendency to gravitate toward the idea that if it was such a good idea, businesses would help pay the price. And I think that the transit supporters don’t, in general, have problems with subsidizing economic development.
Q: What needs to happen to move past the political gridlock? Who needs to be at the table?

MLH: First of all, you have to get representatives from greater Minnesota and the business community more involved. Because there are so many camps, I believe you also need a balance of transit and roads people. It would also be nice to look at the entire pot of money for transportation, roads, bridges, transit, Metro Mobility, Dial-a-Ride, et cetera. I mean there’s a whole kettle of components that make up transportation across the state. So you need a group around the table that can fairly look at all these components and then look at some kind of meaningful distribution of funds across the board. When you have the right cross-section of people at the table, then you will have a greater understanding of what the needs are. And I would say the same thing to both sides: that there must be an attempt to find some sort of balance. Not everybody’s going to get everything they want, but most people might get what they need. There has to be a middle ground.