Eight years ago, a conservative administration came to power clinging tightly to an idea that had characterized American greatness in the post-1945 era: expansion on the suburban edge, fueled by cheap gasoline and the laying of new pavement.
The new governor, Tim Pawlenty, went so far as to select his running mate, Carol Molnau, as his transportation commissioner, knowing well her “concrete-in-my-veins” reputation and her advocacy for a second beltway to further extend the much idealized “crabgrass frontier.”
But now the administration has run out of gas, or, more accurately, out of money to pay for new roads. This is a coming-of-age story for Minnesota, a realization that suburban expansion can no longer be sustained in quite the same way and that the Twin Cities must find more efficient ways to grow.
It’s that shift in direction that makes the just-released update of the Metropolitan Council’s 2030 Transportation Plan such a remarkable document. The plan is a major departure from the early Pawlenty years.
A pragmatic approach
Nowhere is there a hint of the old ideological incantations about public transit (“a train to nowhere”) or about the kind of dense development that transit often brings (“social engineering”). Nowhere is there stiff resistance to the notion that the world has changed – because it so obviously has.
It’s not that an ideological conversion has swept through the upper floors at MnDOT or the Met Council. It’s just that, as Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “Gentlemen, we’ve run out of money; now we must think.” And thinking has restored the idea that conservatives should actually favor conserving.
In terms of transportation and development, conserving means taking better care of the roadways already in place and working to maximize their capacity. It means paying close attention to the dictates of a changing marketplace, one that has begun to prefer smaller homes, shorter trips, and more options for getting around. And it means coming to terms with the hidden government subsidies that have encouraged an excessive sprawl of development and infrastructure, a pattern that everyone pays for. Efficiency is, perhaps, the metro area’s new theme going forward.
Just ahead: More MnPass toll lanes
The most obvious policy shift comes in trading new suburban freeways for additional “managed lanes” on existing roadways. Under the plan, adding free lanes to Interstate Hwy. 494 in Plymouth would be reassessed. The same holds for expanding Hwys. 610 in Maple Grove, 494 in Bloomington and 694 in the northeast suburbs and building a new bridge over the Minnesota River near Chaska.
Instead, toll lanes for single drivers and express buses (MnPass lanes) would be added gradually to major freeway segments. Included are Hwys. 94-494 from Rogers to Mendota Heights, 169 from Shakopee to Edina, 77 from Apple Valley to Bloomington, 35W between Minneapolis and Blaine, 36 between Minneapolis and White Bear Lake, and 94 and 35E (northern segment only) through St. Paul.
Other low-cost traffic management tools would also be employed, including fixing bottlenecks and adding ramp meters and real-time congestion warnings. One key aim is to increase the reliability of truck shipments through the metro freeway system. Another is to squeeze the maximum capacity out of the current network.
The funding problem has been building for decades. Drivers have simply avoided paying the full price for edge development, road expansion and roadway maintenance. To catch up, while also meeting new demands over the next 20 years, would take $40 billion in new state spending. Raising that amount would require a $2 hike in the state gasoline tax, a price no politician is willing to assess.
Are there ever enough new freeway lanes?
Previous Met Council plans had described the region’s aspirations for road and transit investments, then simply stated that funds were not available. This draft, however, spells out other factors, aside from the lack of money, that played a part in a major policy shift:
• The 2007 bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis underscored the need to prioritize fixing the aging infrastructure already in place.
• The experience of all busy metro areas demonstrated the futility of trying to “build your way out of congestion.” New freeway lanes quickly fill up with traffic.
• Transit investments – especially the Hiawatha light rail line – demonstrated that trains and buses aren’t just a social service for the poor but can take cars off the roads and generate a kind of redevelopment that reduces travel demand.
• A spike in gasoline prices and construction costs (2005-08) offered a possible preview of higher prices to come and further changes in travel habits and the ability to respond with new roads.
• Growing concerns about the impact of fuel burning on climate could trigger carbon taxes that might substantially alter travel demands and living patterns.
One other notable change from past reports: an emphasis on moving people, not just cars, with a bow to walking, biking and attendant land development.
A public hearing in downtown Minneapolis on Monday underscored the shifting ground beneath the new plan: Environmental and transit groups often critical of the administration lauded the new approach; suburban politicians normally aligned with the administration criticized it.
Judy Johnson, a member of the Plymouth City Council, sharply disagreed with a proposed toll lane on Interstate Hwy. 494 between Minnetonka and Maple Grove. She said her suburb would be “boxed in” by MnPass lanes the local residents don’t want. They will bring more traffic to local streets, she predicted, and cause safety problems.
“The grand and glorious days of paving aren’t here right now. We know that,” she said. “We know we have to scale back. But it’s disappointing to see a general use land that we had been promised taken away. We understand the greater good … and we try to do our part. But there’s not much support for this in Plymouth.”
In contrast, representatives of Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) praised the draft. Jim Erkel from MCEA said it reflected a “new normal” by “elevating land use as a transportation issue.” Dave Van Hattum also complimented the draft but said TLC would oppose new MnPass lanes that fail to include funding for express bus service within them.
Allen Lovejoy, St. Paul’s transportation planner, lauded the plan but urged the Met Council to add specific incentives for concentrating jobs and housing along transit corridors.
Comment: This draft update is thorough and professional. It places the Twin Cities squarely in the mainstream of transportation-land use thinking. Met Council Chairman Peter Bell and MnDOT Commissioner Thomas Sorel deserve praise for setting aside ideology to present a realistic assessment of the current transportation dilemma and a prudent, straightforward response. Reversing current job location trends by encouraging employers to locate near transit stations should be a top priority going forward.
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