At the end of May, Gov. Tim Walz named Nancy Daubenberger as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
The appointment comes amid skyrocketing gas prices, just weeks after the most devastating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report yet and just months after President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Her appointment also comes as MnDOT prepares to finalize 20-year policy and funding plans.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation can deliver huge progress on climate sustainability and economic stability, and can do so quickly. But making these strides will require that Daubenberger and the Walz administration meet this moment with strong and decisive leadership.
First, Daubenberger should set expectations that MnDOT will only build future-facing infrastructure — i.e., that infrastructure that Minnesota will need in a sustainable and just future 50 years from now. These expectations should be the backbone of all short- and long-term plans at the agency, including those currently being developed by MnDOT staff.
This direction would be well-supported by MnDOT’s statutorily established goals, which direct the agency to “maximize the long-term benefits received for each state transportation investment,” to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s transportation sector” and to impose “minimal impact on the environment.” And although MnDOT’s statutory goals do not mention race or class equity, the long-term health of the state — and achieving the governor’s vision of “One Minnesota” — clearly requires racial and economic justice.
Second, Daubenberger should leverage federal infrastructure dollars to deliver on these long-term climate and equity goals. Using the dollars in this way would be consistent with the direction of the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), which issued guidance requesting that state DOTs invest in projects that are “accessible for all users,” are “more sustainable and resilient to a changing climate” and are “more equitable” — specifically, projects that expand transit and non-motorized modes.
Federal guidance further — and relatedly — asks state DOTs to avoid “projects that expand the general purpose capacity of roads and highways.” Why avoid highway expansion? Because doubling down on car-based infrastructure will raise emissions (transportation is Minnesota’s largest source of climate pollution) and elevate economic disparities (transportation was the second highest household expense for American families — higher than education or health care — even before gas prices doubled).
But critical, here, is that the federal Department of Transportation’s guidance is just that — guidance. That means MnDOT has the flexibility, but not the obligation, to align with the USDOT. Therefore, the future is in Daubenberger’s hands; she has the opportunity for action and no excuse for inaction. (As a side note, Minnesota will likely receive more federal dollars if the agency aligns its funding plans with federal guidance.)
Finally, Daubenberger should hit the streets (they are under her jurisdiction, after all) and promote the agency’s future-facing efforts. Because while the Walz administration has done a good job of appealing to centrist voters — a vital exercise — it has too often deflated the Democratic base through high-profile decisions like the approval of the Line 3 pipeline.
A future-focused and ambitious MnDOT would excite voters (yes, transportation can be exciting!). It could establish the governor as serious about climate, and could establish a firm path toward greater economic and racial justice. And it’s not just about the Democratic base: Climate- and community-focused transportation infrastructure is popular across the board. A strong majority of Minnesotans and U.S. residents support better transit, biking, walking and rolling options, according to polling and engagement by MnDOT and Transportation for America.
Transportation touches everything. It determines how, when or even if we can get to our jobs. It influences where we live, whether we can get to school or activities, and which of our friends we see. It impacts our health, environment and climate. Its costs govern our ability to save or pay rent.
Daubenberger’s job is not about asphalt and concrete — it’s about the future of our state. She should embrace and guide MnDOT’s potential, for the present and future of all Minnesotans.
Sam Rockwell is executive director of a transportation nonprofit and lectures on land use and transportation at the University of Minnesota.