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Latest Met Council transit plan offers major shift in state thinking

Here’s the main headline: For the first time, the plan refutes Minnesota’s 1950s-era position that adding freeway lanes can solve auto congestion.

There’s a Bob Dylan thread running through the Metropolitan Council’s latest 2030 Transportation Policy Plan: The times they are a-changing.

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty took office in 2003, he installed an administration that reflected his views on transportation, views cultivated as a Republican legislative leader hostile to mass transit, especially to rail.

His then-transportation commissioner, Carol Molnau, said famously that she had “concrete running in her veins,” meaning that she’d much prefer an expansion of the freeway system — including a second beltway — to the building of a modern transit network. Buses and trains were seen as a social service for the urban poor, not as a legitimate alternative to traffic congestion, air pollution and excessive energy consumption.

The popularity of the newly opened Hiawatha light rail line altered the administration’s tone. Hostility transformed into grudging tolerance. Over Molnau’s objection, Pawlenty championed completion of the Northstar rail commuter line. (It’s scheduled to begin service next year.) The administration was tiptoeing into a new century.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, the governor’s chief planner and operator of the regional transit network, found it suddenly easier to consider the possibility of a fully built-out system, although he and the governor made painfully clear the absence of money for such an enterprise. “Existing revenue streams simply will not be adequate to implement this plan,” the Met Council’s 2004 Transportation Plan stated. When Democrats proposed raising the metro sales tax to build a system, Bell opposed it.

“They were just lines on paper,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

Veto override first major transit breakthrough
Last winter’s historic legislative override of Pawlenty’s transportation veto provided the first major breakthrough. A quarter-cent rise in the local sales tax makes real the probability that the Twin Cities will have a “transitway” system built throughout the metro within the next 20 years (see map below), starting with the Central light rail line running between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.



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That’s a brief summary of transit in the Pawlenty era, except to note that bus service has been cut by 10 percent since 2001 while riders have endured three fare increases. Despite all of that, transit ridership has risen to a 25-year high and demand continues to grow. It’s as if the administration has had the perverse notion that charging more money for less service creates more customers. Actually, one wonders how many more riders would have appeared had service expanded and fares stayed steady. It’s a “transit advantage” that the Met Council has been unwilling to try.

But, all in all, times are changing. Gone are the rhetorical jabs against transit as a “boondoggle” and “social engineering.” If anything, the new trend is impatience over not getting as much transit as the metro needs in a rapidly changing world. Even this conservative administration has warmed to the idea of transit as a force to reduce auto congestion, climate change and energy consumption, although it has not yet warmed to the idea of investing in it.

All of that is prelude to discussing the Met Council’s latest 2030 transportation draft, now available for public comment. Here’s the main headline: For the first time, the plan refutes Minnesota’s 1950s-era position that adding freeway lanes can solve auto congestion. Other urbanizing states gave up that notion long ago, so this latest plan represents a major policy shift, and it places Minnesota closer to the mainstream of national transportation thinking.

Indeed, experience shows that busy urban areas cannot build their way out of auto congestion. Instead, they must provide choices that include transit, walking and biking to more daily destinations. “No matter how many highway lanes are built, there are never enough to meet the growing demands for peak-hour urban travel,” the plan states. “New  lanes can “fill up in a matter of months. … The transportation system must optimize all available transportation modes — highways, transit and others — and coordinate them for maximum effect.”

Change from auto dependence a big financial challenge
The plan cites extreme financial challenges that lie ahead in moving the metro area from auto dependence to a mixed lifestyle and travel approach. It’s the financial impossibility of adding roads, rather than the environmental necessity of a mixed approach, that seems to drive the council’s thinking. But, in any case, the new emphasis will be to maintain and increase the peak capacity of existing freeways rather than to add new ones.

How to do that?

The plan suggests more lanes reserved for car pools and buses, more tolling and more use of freeway shoulders for buses and tolled autos. It proposes a major study that, by 2010, would determine how to maximize the movement of people — not vehicles — through the metro’s major roadway corridors. A roster of projects is expected, leading to a change in the characteristics of the metro’s major freeways in the coming years; more buses and more time-of-day tolling for solo drivers.

How might the 2030 plan improve?

• There could be more geographic balance. Anyone looking at the map can see that most major transit investments are planned for the West Metro and that downtown Minneapolis emerges as the primary hub for the entire region. Market realities dictate this outcome. The West has more population, jobs, business and traffic. It’s a heavier user of transit, with transit carrying 30 percent to 40 percent of the commuter load into central Minneapolis on certain corridors. Federal funding formulas reward that kind of density and transit demand.

East Metro seeking its ‘fair share’
But St. Paul and the East Metro make a good point. If major transit investments encourage nearby development, as the record shows, then the East should get its share. Extending the Central line to Woodbury should be considered. Bus Rapid Transit on the Rush corridor should move forward. Red Rock commuter trains between Union Depot and Hastings should be developed alongside the St. Paul-Chicago high-speed rail corridor. Adding local trains to Hastings, and eventually Rochester, would add to the cost-effectiveness of the high-speed initiative.

• There should be greater emphasis on efficient land-use. “Proximity” has become an important concept in transportation thinking. It means that the closer destinations are to one another, the less travel is needed. If jobs, housing and shopping can be concentrated in nodes and if nodes can be linked together by transit, then the need to drive greatly declines.

Unfortunately, current market incentives produce the opposite result. Cheap land in sparse areas drives the location of jobs. Employers can then expect taxpayers to bear the expense of providing roads and transit to get people to work in the least efficient ways. There’s no disincentive for this kind of behavior on the part of employers. In recent years, the metro area’s performance in producing jobs close to transit has been abysmal. Stronger incentives are needed, or, as Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb told me last week, “I’d like to see a more deliberate link between transit and land use.”

• The Met Council should set more explicit goals and advocate for the investments needed to meet them. If the council wants to reduce auto travel, it should set goals and measure results. Same for walking, bike-riding and job and housing location.

• Congestion relief should be discarded as a major emphasis. Prosperous, successful cities are congested cities. More stress should be placed on efficient development patterns, protecting the climate and environment and reducing energy costs.

• Construction of major transitways should be accelerated. Ways to include private investment in the Southwest light rail line should be explored, for example, so that it can be completed in 2015 rather than after 2020.

• Funding should be stabilized. If the aim is to reduce driving, then it makes sense to require drivers to pay the fuller cost of their driving. Tolls, carbon taxes and mileage taxes may accomplish that in the decades ahead. In the shorter run, a way must be found to mitigate transit’s disastrous reliance on the motor vehicle sales tax (MVST). It’s absolutely perverse that the growing transit need depends on proceeds from declining car sales. Transit operations would have been in far better shape had they remained on the property tax, as before 2001.

Some of those same observations were offered at a public hearing on the new plan last week.

McLaughlin, the Hennepin commissioner, reminded the council that the sales tax increase it opposed will provide $1 billion for transit expansion over the next decade. He pushed the Red Rock idea mentioned above.

Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center For Environmental Advocacy, Lynne Bly of Fresh Energy and Joshua Houdek of the Sierra Club urged a stronger connection between transit and land use.

Barb Thoman of Transit for Livable Communities asked for explicit goals and measurements as a way to make the plan accountable.

Several private citizens pleaded for transit service to their suburban homes, illustrating, perhaps, the huge learning curve still required to understand the transportation marketplace. One man complained that after he moved from St. Paul to Shoreview, the bus no longer came through his neighborhood. The answer to his dilemma, of course, is this: Don’t move to Shoreview.

Here’s the way I tried to explain it in a piece about Twin Cities transit written for Planning magazine: “Consider the metro map. In spatial terms, the proposed transitway network lays a new hub-and-spoke pattern over the top of the freeway grid. The idea is to offer choice to commuters — both in travel and in neighborhood type. Auto-bound suburbs [read Shoreview] will remain tied to the freeway grid. But the transit spokes and hub will become a parallel universe — a live/work/shop world in which the need for car is minimized. At least that’s the vision.”