A new normal: Putting the brakes on suburban freeway expansion

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.

Strange bedfellows
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.

The comment period for the daft ends on Oct. 7. Comments can be submitted to this email address: data.center@metc.state.mn.us.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by John Reinan on 09/29/2010 - 10:08 am.

    I’m a volunteer on the historic streetcar that runs between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun. Let me give you an excerpt from the little talk I deliver on each run — as a reminder of what we lost when the trolleys shut down in 1954.


    The Twin Cities once had one of the best streetcar systems in the nation, with more than 500 miles of track stretching from Stillwater to Excelsior, and from Anoka to Hastings.

    At the height of service in the 1920s, the streecars carried more than 220 million passengers a year — or about 600,000 people a day. Coincidentally, 600,000 was about the combined population of Minneapolis and St. Paul at the time. So the streetcars carried the equivalent of the entire population of the Twin Cities every day.

    In the 1920s, no home in Minneapolis was more than 3 blocks from a streetcar stop, and the cars ran every three to five minutes. So at any time of the day and well into the night, you could leave your home, walk no more than a couple of blocks, and wait no more than a couple of minutes for a streetcar to come by.


    We gave up a lot when we turned our entire transportation system over to cars for the better part of a century. And don’t even get me started on how great it would be to take a comfortable, fast train to Chicago or St. Louis or Fargo.

  2. Submitted by Patrick Steele on 09/29/2010 - 11:27 am.

    Anyone who studies traffic management understands the importance of managed traffic and public transportation. Still, I can all but guarantee this article will bring in comments regarding the subsidized nature of public transportation and the like. I just can’t wait until the lovely new crosstown commons turns a profit!

  3. Submitted by Craig Westover on 09/29/2010 - 11:46 am.

    Congestion is indeed a market-driven phenomenon. If freeway lanes are added where they meet pent-up demand, more cars will use the roads and congestion will increase to the same marginal level. The difference is at the same congestion level (the same traffic flow) more people have mobility to get from where they are to where they want to go to do what they want to do when they want to do it.

    What Mr. Berg ignores is that adding transit to the mix has the same effect. If transit is properly located, it will take cars off the road — until at the margins drivers who prefer personal to mass transportation start using the roads and increase congestion to the same marginal (tolerable) levels. Transit cannot be justified by “taking cars off the road.”

    The proper question is one of efficiency and cost effectiveness. Does a $1 billion light rail corridor operating at only 33 percent of fare box revenue result in more or less mobility that, say, and $250 million “unweave the weave” project?

    Vis-a-vis toll roads: Charging a toll to use a road built by tax dollars is simply a way for the state to generate revenue without providing additional service. Toll lanes make sense only when a person derives a private benefit from the road system; for example when tolls are varied to ensure that a driver can drive the speed limit by setting a price versus demand that limits the number of drivers who would opt to use the toll lane. The driver choosing to pay the toll receives the private benefit of purchasing “time.” Free market economics at work.

  4. Submitted by Craig Westover on 09/29/2010 - 12:02 pm.

    Re: #2

    Patrick ignores the difference between a public good and a private benefit. Roads are a public good in the sense that even if you do not drive, you benefit from a road system: Roads provide access to your home by emergency vehicles, police and fire; virtually everything in your home has at one point traveled on a road via a truck. It is appropriate to use general tax dollars to pay for roads.

    (That is not to say overbuilding roads is good thing. It is not. But that is a different question.)

    Transit is a private benefit — just as driving a car is private benefit. The transit rider personally and exclusively benefits from occupying a transit seat as the driver personally and exclusively benefits from driving a car. The difference is the car driver pays the entire cost of his/her operation of a vehicle while the transit rider pays roughly 1/3 the operating cost (not including amortization of construction costs).

    To illustrate with an example, a bus and a car sit next to each other at a stoplight. The driver of the car and a passenger on the bus earn the same amount and pay exactly the same taxes and the same amount of their tax dollar goes to build and maintain the road on which they sit. The car driver in addition pays the entire cost of operating and maintaining his automobile; the bus rider pays only 1/3 the cost of his transportation. The car driver must pay for his own transportation and (aggregated) must pay 2/3 of the transit rider’s transportation cost.

    When government subsidizes a private benefit for some (justice aside) it requires redistribution of private resources to a less-efficient use. That is simply unsound economics.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/29/2010 - 12:02 pm.

    Thanks to John Reinan for that bit of local history. Growing up in inner-ring suburb St. Louis, I have clear memories of streetcars there, too, and much of the track has simply been paved over in the decades since. Might well be the case here, too.

    Upon my arrival to the Twin Cities metro area as a resident rather than an occasional visitor, I was disappointed to discover the degree to which the metro area is auto-centric, as well as the futility of that mind set. Morning and evening rush hour traffic jams around here – if you’re on the wrong interstate at the wrong time – rival any traffic horror story from L.A., Atlanta, Chicago, or any other auto-dependent big city. I’m more than a little pleased to see the change in mind set reflected in the revised transportation plan.

    I claim no professional expertise – I was a citizen-volunteer planning commissioner in Colorado, not a professional planner – but it appears that the Twin Cities are about 5 years behind metro Denver in realizing that it’s simply not possible to build enough highway lanes to eliminate congestion, and that encouraging development around the fringes is ultimately self-defeating. Facing similar issues of auto strangulation, Denver has embarked – even with the economic downturn and tremendous spikes in material costs – on the construction of a large and comprehensive (when it’s all built) light-rail transit system (“FasTracks”) that should serve the Queen City of the Plains well into the century. This was voter-approved (taxes and bonding are involved) in 2004, and if things continue on schedule, the first line should open for service in about a year, if what I saw on a visit in July is any indication.

    The Twin Cities needn’t copy Denver’s plan, but reducing our dependence upon oil, not to mention the automobile, is environmentally and economically necessary, and that kind of drastic revision of transporting both humans and goods won’t work unless/until this change in mind set, and also unless/until there are viable alternatives available to the general public as well as businesses. We’re not anywhere close to that point yet, but it’s heartening to see that progress is finally being made. I hope this means the corner has finally been turned.

  6. Submitted by John Reinan on 09/29/2010 - 12:39 pm.

    I will note that the Mpls. streecar system was a private business. Its undoing was hastened by having to compete with the billions of dollars spent by government at all levels on automobile-based transportation. Meanwhile, government regulators controlled its fare structure and repeatedly refused fare increases.

    So the streetcars were taking a one-two punch from government.

  7. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 09/29/2010 - 01:07 pm.

    Craig, I think your analysis is flawed.

    “virtually everything in your home has at one point traveled on a road via a truck.”

    How can you write this without asking why that might be? We subsidize inefficient trucking over efficient rail. I don’t understand this view that everything is the way it is because that’s somehow the natural order of things as created by the “invisible hand”. Our reliance on trucking is outcome of policy decisions made over the past fifty years.

    “Transit is a private benefit”
    Unless you want business owners to be able to have employees who can get to work. Especially if you like $.99 hamburgers made by $5/hr workers.

    “The difference is the car driver pays the entire cost of his/her operation of a vehicle”

    It startles me that anyone believes this. As though our entire road infrastructure is paid for by our almost nonexistent gas taxes. Not to mention the trillions spend mucking around in the middle east to keep gas prices artificially low.

    I guess what’s frustrating is that nothing I’ve pointed out here even relies on some kind of tree-hugging liberal socialist point of view. It seems to me conservatives simply are not understanding the whole picture, instead substituting a deeply myopic, oversimplified, and self-serving narrative of how the market is working.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/29/2010 - 01:28 pm.

    Good posts John…

    The current dominance of automobiles is due to massive subsidization by government which through most of the twentieth century competed with privately owned, privately operated railways including streetcar systems that had to pay taxes. Every conservative understands very quickly what happens when you tax one mode and subsidize the other. The taxed mode disappears and the subsidized mode becomes dominant. Nothing about our current imbalance in transportation is a free market outcome. Not in the slightest.

    The notion that the gas tax covers all highway expenses is a notion that should make anyone in state government laugh. The highways require enormous support, local state and federal, that goes well beyond what gas taxes bring in. So it’s not a question of a subsidized mode versus an unsubsidized mode.

    What should be done and what should have been done in the seventies is that the gas tax should be designed so that the price of gas goes up a predictable amount every year.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/29/2010 - 01:47 pm.

    To argue that highway funding played no role in setting American development patterns is, I think, very difficult indeed. It is, for one thing, to suggest that Americans are immune to considerations of costs and benefits. Highway construction made living farther away from center cities and other households very cheap, and since the highway boom of the 1950s, American households have responded to this incentive. If the density differences seem massive, that’s probably because the funding disparity between roads and rails is likewise massive: some 40 to 1 in favor of highways for six decades now.

    I am perfectly willing to concede that, other things equal, higher American incomes would lead to more American driving as well.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/29/2010 - 02:08 pm.

    Even in highly populated cities, public transit never fails to meet any of its promised benefits but always drags the graft, waste and mismanagement baggage any public enterprise has.

    In addition to dragging along all the existing problems, public transit *always* includes the creation of:

    1. Special taxing districts, managed by another new bureaucracy.

    2. New public employee unions.

    3. Dedicated police force, complete with everything that entails (cars, support logistics, equipment & etc.)

    The list goes on and on.

    Every public transit system in the country is running perpetual deficits; every one. Even though they compete with the public school system in their frequency of necessitating tax increases.

    Don’t believe it? Try googling (transit name)+ deficit.

    In Pennsylvania, it got so bad they wanted to sell the whole mess off.

    Public transit has a place, a very small, very specialized place in our society. Targeted routes run at times targeted to serving commuting workers make some sense, but every expansion of public transit, especially choo-choo trains, has wrought financial disaster upon the hapless heads of taxpaying residents.

    To say nothing of the constant upheaval of transit union strikes.

    One more reason it is so important to get Tom Emmer seated ASAP, before any more money is wasted even considering expanding our public transit system.

  11. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 09/29/2010 - 02:36 pm.

    All transit runs “deficits”. The problem is that public transportation systems are held to a different standard. The deficit of the public road system is the combined costs of maintenance, expansion, traffic police, the list goes on and on – all of this and a million things I’m forgetting minus the amount of all gas taxes collected, which at something in the realm of $.10 a gallon can’t possibly even come close.

    Why do you scrutinize the public systems but nobody bothers to scrutinize every $1 billion cloverleaf that gets installed?

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/29/2010 - 02:44 pm.

    Correction, should have read: “Even in highly populated cities, public transit never manages to meet any of its promised traffic lightening benefits but always drags the graft, waste and mismanagement baggage any public enterprise has.”

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/29/2010 - 02:57 pm.

    //Even in highly populated cities, public transit never fails to meet any of its promised benefits but always drags the graft, waste and mismanagement baggage any public enterprise has.

    You guys just make this stuff up. For one thing, if you think there’s no graft associated with road construction and maintenance you are seriously naive. Second, if you’ve ever been to any city or country that has well designed public transportation systems the benefits are undeniable.

    On another note, I have to remind people that public transportation is built for the people who use it, not for those who don’t. It’s important to remember this lest you fall into the trap of thinking that relieving road congestion is the rationale for building public transport. The measure of any public transportation system is whether or not it’s being used, not how many cars it gets off the road.

  14. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/29/2010 - 03:08 pm.

    “Why do you scrutinize the public systems but nobody bothers to scrutinize every $1 billion cloverleaf that gets installed?”

    Simple; Bang for the buck.

    How many US citizens use roads everyday? In some way, all of them.

    How many US citizens ride public transit everyday? Maybe 10%…15%?

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/29/2010 - 03:20 pm.

    “For one thing, if you think there’s no graft associated with road construction and maintenance you are seriously naive.”

    Since all minnesota public works projects mandate the use of union contractors, I agree 100%, Greg.

    “Second, if you’ve ever been to any city or country that has well designed public transportation systems the benefits are undeniable.”

    Sure. There are people that benefit from public transit, Paul. No question.



    Earlier research found that in Chicago neighborhoods with relatively little crime, robberies were concentrated in the first two or three blocks away from rapid transit stations and peaked at about 1.5 blocks from the station.”

    “In neighborhoods with many robberies, distance from a rapid transit station was unrelated to number of street robberies.”

    I guess you could say it’s just another type of commuting to work!

    I grew up in Chicago. My mom would sooner have thrown me a hand grenade as a CTA token.

    Isolated example? Try googling (any transit system) + Robbery.


  16. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/29/2010 - 03:42 pm.

    Thanks to Richard (#9 & #10) and Paul (#14).

    Mr. Swift needs to get his head out of his vehicle more often. Auto transit is massively subsidized in all sorts of ways – none of which even faintly resemble “a free market.”

    On Paul’s point: every light rail system that’s been built in the U.S. in the past 30 years has exceeded ridership projections by a substantial amount, sometimes by a factor of 2 or 3. It has happened here with the Hiawatha Line, it happened in Denver, and it happened in St. Louis 20 years ago when I lived there.

    Once I rode the light rail downtown to a Cardinal game and back – skipping not only the cost of gasoline, but also the cost of parking, pro-rated insurance, wear and tear on the automobile, etc. – I never drove to downtown St. Louis again, though I was a frequent visitor. Same thing in Denver. Once the light rail (and also “express” buses with only 2 or 3 stops over the 10 mile trip to downtown from my suburb) was in use, I quit driving downtown. In Denver as in St. Louis as in Minneapolis, it’s possible to travel anywhere on the planet that has an airport without getting your car out of the garage. I’ve done it. Take the bus or the train to the airport, and back to your home again, for less money, even paying it up front, than it costs to drive and leave your car in a long-term or short-term lot for the duration of your travel.

    Cities (and countries) in Europe rely on a mix of public and private transit, but the emphasis is on public, and travel is cheap, convenient and comfortable as a result. Much like medical care, they get a lot more bang for their figurative transportation buck than we do. To make the inevitable conversion to an emphasis on public rather than private transit work as it should, it will take not only time, but also the availability of a viable alternative, which is why policy documents like the metro plan have to lead the way. Once the money starts to get spent differently, other priorities change as well, as do development patterns.

    We weren’t all driving automobiles a century ago, and we won’t all be driving automobiles a century from now. The oil-based industrial economy isn’t going to last, and societies that hope to survive and prosper during the transition would do well to start planning now.

  17. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/29/2010 - 04:08 pm.

    The undoing of our excellent public transit system was not because of the government. this from another website: General Motors killed [public transit] it. GM killed it by employing a host of anti-competitive devices which, like National City Lines, debased rail transit and promoted auto sales.

    This is not about a “plot” hatch by wild-eyed corporate rogues, but rather about a consummate business strategy crafted by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., the MIT-trained genius behind General Motors, to expand auto sales and maximize profits by eliminating streetcars.”
    The other part of that is the role played by several notorious mob figures like Kid Cann and by Fred Ossanna who took control of the company. I don’t remember all the details now; you can look up this well-documented story. Several mob figures went to prison over this.
    GM got rid of the streetcars and began selling buses to the city.
    I believe the streetcars, still in good condition, were sold to Mexico.
    A lot of high level shenanigans among businesses, not government.

  18. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/29/2010 - 04:09 pm.

    By the way Swift, the graft and corruption were on the part of big companies–not the government. This was all a “free market” gig.

  19. Submitted by Bob Spaulding on 09/29/2010 - 04:32 pm.

    Craig Westover writes that “When government subsidizes a private benefit for some (justice aside) it requires redistribution of private resources to a less-efficient use. That is simply unsound economics.”

    But course what’s more efficient:

    (1) Each American family paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month to buy and maintain millions of breakable little plastic boxes to drive around for just a couple hours a day, which in addition to the financial costs have severe social and environmental costs, or

    (2) paying professionals to buy a much smaller number of those vehicles when possible, vehicles of higher-quality, maintained by professionals, and used for many hours per day, with lower societal costs.

    Transit is inefficient only when you build an artificial wall between public and private waste, and write off the potential of the commons and government to help improve the efficiency of urban transportation, and pretend that there’s not even more inefficiency in families putting boatloads of money into owning and maintaining two (or more) cars that are used only an hour or two a day.

    And insofar as transit isn’t as speedy or efficient as you’d optimally like, ask people in a place that has invested in transit seriously (ie Japan) how quickly they get around between their daily destinations.

    But in American popular discourse, we can’t consider the failure of government to reduce private costs at all, as real as they may be – be they health care or transportation. With the enormous exception of taxes, of course, which we can apparently discuss endlessly.

  20. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 09/29/2010 - 04:49 pm.

    Ironically, this seems consistent with the recent news that atheists know more about religion: liberals apparently have a considerably less childish understanding of capitalism, or at the very least the ability to identify markets that are not actually free, hidden costs and relative efficiencies. There must be a connection here…

  21. Submitted by donald maxwell on 09/29/2010 - 06:37 pm.

    Conversion of existing lanes to toll lanes is not – repeat not – making more efficient use of the infrastructure now in place. Instead it lowers that efficiency. It is also just a politically realistic (cowardly) way of raising revenue, to avoid the critically needed increases in fuel tax.

    And it is, as well, a continuation of the class war of the affluent against the poor.

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