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Bell’s transit plan is superb (except somebody forgot to include money)

In the Q-and-A session that followed Peter Bell’s State of the Region address Monday, the Metropolitan Council chairman predicted an astonishing thing: that within the next decade and a half, a presidential candidate would propose a new national rai

In the Q-and-A session that followed Peter Bell’s State of the Region address Monday, the Metropolitan Council chairman predicted an astonishing thing: that within the next decade and a half, a presidential candidate would propose a new national rail network to supplement the Interstate highway system.

In other words, the nation would catch up to what the most forward-looking metropolitan areas have been doing on a smaller scale for two decades: systematically building and rebuilding their transit networks to counterbalance the huge costs that autos impose on the environment and energy supply.

Characteristically, Bell didn’t mention how such a national rail network might be financed. His remark was more in the nature of a muse. But surely no rail version of the Interstate highway system would be financed with borrowed money, one line at a time. Such a process would take a century to complete. Interest costs would be astronomical. Yet that is precisely the process that Bell and his boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, advocate for Minneapolis-St. Paul’s transit system.

Gorilla in the room
And so, even though Bell stated clearly that the Central light rail line is his top priority (a sentiment that drew enthusiastic applause), and even though he mentioned Northstar and a few other projects, he did not spell out how to fund the building out of the local transit system. That was the gorilla in the room. And it is the gorilla that the Legislature will tangle with when it convenes next week, with transportation at the top of its to-do list.

In his speech, Bell quoted Pawlenty as saying that “America is ready for bold, innovative energy policies that will make us safer, independent and better stewards of the planet.” But there’s nothing “bold” in dodging the financial commitment to a transit build-out, as the administration has done. And there’s nothing intellectually honest about dodging the obvious connection between being “better stewards of the planet” and investing in transit alternatives, especially when autos account for a quarter of the state’s carbon emissions problem.

Already this spring’s legislative scenario can be detected. Democrats will again invite Pawlenty’s veto by offering a package similar to the one he has nixed twice before — including allowing the metro counties to impose a sales tax increase to pay for transit expansion. Pawlenty will veto the bill and blame transit interests (read metro Democrats) for blocking progress on roads and bridges statewide. That kind of divide-and-conquer is smart politics. But it does nothing to advance the glaring transportation deficit.

The genius of the Republican approach is that it offers a keen diagnosis of the problem and a painless, no-new-tax solution that turns out to be no solution at all; at least not a timely one. Bell does, indeed, have a plan for building out the region’s transit system in an impressive way. But unlike the plans of other metro regions around the country, it lacks a chapter on financing. And without money, its value is questionable.

Credit to Bell
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who attended Bell’s speech at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis, estimated that the Met Council is $425 million short on its transit plans over the next decade.

That not-so-small matter aside, it’s important that Bell get the credit he deserves for his overall agenda and vision for the metro region. He is a gifted public servant. His priorities — from improving transit to managing growth to investing in new regional parks — are spot on.

Indeed, Bell is largely responsible for the rhetorical progress that Republicans have made on metropolitan issues. A decade ago, the party’s legislative leaders (Pawlenty among them) saw light rail as a boondoggle at best and a communist plot at worst. Transit was considered a social service for those unworthy of driving. The environment was to be exploited, not protected. Energy was to be consumed, not conserved. The concept of regional planning was, itself, suspect. One member of the current Met Council proposed that the body be abolished.

Bell does not subscribe to any of that, although his language may differ slightly from today’s planning vernacular. During Monday’s Q-and-A session, he was asked if he favored restrictions on development based on the region’s “carbon footprint.” He said that such a tactic would incur legal challenges. He would prefer trusting the market to deliver the prudent development pattern that global circumstances now dictate.

Bell avoids terms like “carbon footprint” and “sprawl,” and he distrusts any “heavy hand” from government. But I know from conversations with him that he believes firmly in a more efficient development pattern, one that minimizes the need to stretch out expensive sewer lines and other services; that he does not view the central cities with contempt; that he does see rail transit as a tool for encouraging more compact, eco-friendly living, and that he greatly values the region’s natural features. In short, his view of an ideal Twin Cities closely comports to that of his critics.

In rhetorical terms, Bell has done a great deal to construct a bipartisan consensus on what the metro region ought to be. He is by nature a uniter, not a divider.

But big differences remain: Can a transit system be built in a timely manner and paid for with borrowed money, one project at a time? Or is a steady flow of revenue needed? Should a shift toward transit be part of Minnesota’s attempt to lessen the impact of climate change and peak oil? Or should transportation’s impact be ignored?