Chair of Minnesota House Transportation Committee Frank Hornstein pays his mentor a visit, and Bernie Lieder, now 97, still dishes out wisdom

    Frank Hornstein is kind of a big deal these days. The DFL Minnesota state representative from Minneapolis authored the House version of the hands-free phone law for Minnesota drivers that’s garnered a lot of headlines as its poised to take effect on Aug. 1. For that reason and others, the chair of the Minnesota House Transportation Committee was in the Brainerd area last week to accept an award. From there, he traveled to Bemidji to participate in the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities summer conference.

    Even with the extra attention he’s getting these days, Hornstein said he knew if he was going to be in Bemidji, that was plenty close enough to Crookston to book a visit here as well so he could spend some time with the person he says is still his mentor when it comes to transportation issues in Minnesota, Bernie Lieder. Lieder, 97, served many terms in the Minnesota House representing District 1B, and, prior to Hornstein taking the reins, Lieder was considered the go-to expert on transportation issues in St. Paul.

    “I’m doing the work today that Bernie once did for so long and in such distinguished fashion,” Hornstein said while seated with Lieder in the Times office. “I’m trying to do it as well as he did. I still call him Representative Lieder. He was my mentor and he remains my mentor today.”

    Hornstein is especially enthusiastic when he talks about Crookston, mostly because it’s home to a New Flyer of America final bus assembly plant. The company is a fixture on the cutting edge of bus transportation technology, energy efficiency and sustainability, and Hornstein loves to talk about the company’s latest innovations.

    Public transit is very important to Hornstein, to say the least.

    “He doesn’t just talk the talk on transit, he walks the walk, literally,” Lieder said.

    Hornstein gave up driving around three years ago. When he travels the state, it’s typically via a Jefferson Lines bus. “With my kids all grown up, I didn’t have to drive them around anymore, and between all the traffic and the aggressive driving, I just had had enough,” he said.

    Hornstein knows that when transportation talk in much of rural Minnesota extends beyond roads and bridges and into the public transit realm, people tend to turn deaf ears. But, he said, roads and bridges and public transit are intertwined and all three are critical to the future of transportation in Minnesota.

    “Bernie taught me that in order to be successful, you have to draft legislation that helps greater Minnesota as well as the metro area,” Hornstein said. “Lately, too much legislation, especially in transportation, has been unbalanced; one region benefits while another doesn’t. Different regions of the state are pitted against each other.”

Sense of urgency

    Significant transportation legislation was passed in the 2019 Minnesota legislative session, but Hornstein said his biggest disappointment was that Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed gas tax increase wasn’t a part of the package. “We thought the House bill addressed our needs, but the Senate Republicans felt differently,” he said. “There is an agenda that we must advance. We’re not just falling behind, infrastructure is literally crumbling. We can’t even maintain much less address expansion.”

    Senate Republicans will say that dedicated general fund dollars to transportation, but Hornstein said if and when the economy starts to slow down, “That money will dry up. Transportation money goes away fast.”

    He says he was “completely on board” with Walz’s gas tax increase. “It would address our needs statewide with roads, bridges and transit,” Hornstein said, adding that there’s more urgent work to be done in the 2020 session in regards to transportation. “The Minnesota Department of Transportation is perched on a fiscal cliff,” he explained. “They have to pay off bonds, they need to issue new bonds. They need more revenue.”

    Transportation must be one of Minnesota’s top priorities, he said, because the agricultural and manufacturing sectors depend on a quality transportation infrastructure. “People elsewhere need what Crookston produces,” he said. “You need quality transportation infrastructure to move goods.”