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Scott County urges the Met Council to suspend its new transportation plan; wants more highways, claims unfair procedures

The update has raised some alarms in the far suburbs because it signals a departure from the Twin Cities’ long-held focus on building new roads to accommodate growth at the metro edge.

If there’s a suburban revolt under way against the latest metro area transportation plan, it hasn’t yet fully erupted. The plan, which anticipates big cuts in freeway expansion on the metro edge in the coming decades, passed the Metropolitan Council’s transportation committee without a peep of opposition on Monday and could pass the full council today despite back-channel objections from Scott County.

The update has raised some alarms in the far suburbs because it signals a departure from the Twin Cities’ long-held focus on building new roads to accommodate growth at the metro edge. New priorities call for squeezing more capacity from existing freeways and adding toll lanes while encouraging shorter trips and alternative modes of travel, especially transit. The policy shift reflects a major lack of funding for new roads (a $40 billion shortfall over 20 years) as well as a changing real estate market, one that anticipates more infill development and less outward expansion in the decades ahead.

Anoka and Scott counties had expressed concern over the update because of its failure to anticipate roads to match the growth they had hoped for. But the only fallout so far has been an exchange of sharply worded letters between Scott County Attorney Patrick Ciliberto, who twice urged the Met Council to suspend its new plan, and Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, who denies any procedural errors and says the plan should go forward.

Ciliberto’s letters, dated Nov. 4 and Nov. 9, don’t address directly the county’s policy disagreement. Rather, they accuse the Met Council of violating legal procedures in preparing and advancing the updated plan. Ciliberto also seeks a formal apology for mistreatment to a Scott County commissioner. In denying any improper prodedure, Bell said that an apology is forthcoming to Commissioner Jon Ulrich for comments made by a Met Council staffer at a public meeting in October.

The Scott County Board met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss a possible lawsuit or other actions against the Council. County spokeswoman Lisa Kohner said that discussions will continue next week. Ciliberto did not return calls Tuesday.

Evolution, not revolution
Bob McFarlin, chair of the Met Council’s transportation committee and a former senior MnDOT official, said has been surprised that Scott County officials have failed to show to testify against the proposed changes at recent meetings. As to the substance of the plan itself, known as the Transportation Policy Plan (TPP), changes aren’t as big as they seem, he said. “They’re less revolutionary than evolutionary,” he said.

Indeed, for those who have been following transportation issues, it has become more apparent over the past decade that the cost of expanding metro roads now far exceeds the willingness of drivers and taxpayers to pay for them. To build all the roads needed to solve metro congestion would require a gasoline tax hike of at least $2 a gallon. Even then, the experience of other busy metro areas shows that added lanes quickly fill up with new traffic. A more prudent approach, the Met Council and MnDOT have concluded, is to emphasize the squeezing of more capacity from existing roadways while adding other travel and land-use options.

“Even if we had the money there is a declining appetite for what we had been building,” McFarlin said.

Revolution or not, the updated plan seems like a major policy shift, given the context of the times. Rising gasoline prices (2005-2008), concerns over climate and energy, and turmoil over real estate and the economy all make it clearer that the era of boundless suburban expansion may be over and that a new era will require more efficiency in transportation and lifestyle. It’s not just that road-building has run out of money; it’s that the cost of expansive development – especially development that requires a lot of daily driving – cannot be sustained.

This is bitter medicine for metro-edge counties like Scott, Anoka, Sherburne, Wright, Isanti and Chisago, each with large numbers of remote, large-lot homes that seem to have lost their market appeal. Indeed, the state’s highest foreclosure rates are in those counties. (Scott ranks sixth, Anoka eighth.) [PDF] By some reckonings, new roads would help revive the market and reinstate the old 1950s-1990s development pattern. So, it’s understandable that county officials might chafe under the new transportation plan and, by extension, a new market for redevelopment centered in the inner suburbs.

Did Met Council bypass the TAB?
Scott County’s objection, outlined its Nov. 4 letter, asserts that the Met Council so hurried its transportation update that it unlawfully bypassed the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB). The TAB is a body that includes elected officials required by the federal government to review all metro transportation spending that includes federal dollars. (The TAB is necessary because the Met Council, unlike most metropolitan planning organizations across the country, includes no elected officials.)

If Scott County launches a lawsuit based on its TAB objections, it could, in a sense, strike at the heart of the Met Council’s legal standing and challenge its legitimacy to make public policy, much as the City of Lake Elmo challenged the council over a zoning issue (and lost) in 2002-2004. 

Ciliberto’s Nov. 4 letter puts it this way: “Inasmuch as the proposed plan seems to completely change the direction of how we invest in our region’s highways – and includes $5.5 billion in rail and Bus Rapid Transit expansion – the publicly elected members of the TAB must have due opportunity to offer full and thoughtful evaluation. We respectfully request a suspension of the Metropolitan Council’s TPP update process until as such time as adequate local input is included and our array of specific plan concerns are addressed. Our region deserves no less than a complete and transparent vetting of such a major policy document.”

Bell, in his Nov. 8 response, denies any improper procedures.

“I have to disagree with your assertion that the TPP update has not followed the appropriately proscribed process,” Bell wrote. TAB and its technical advisers extensively reviewed the plan in June and July before passing it on July 22, he said. He listed 26 public meetings, hearings and workshops dating to November 2009 during which the policy changes were discussed and objections could have been heard. Scott County officials attended several of those meetings.

As for the county’s complaints about transit investments, recent wording changes in the document make it clearer that federal and state funds for transit are as constrained as those for highways. Indeed, federal funds for new transit lines are subject to intense competition among cities.

TAB reiterated its support for the new plan on Oct. 20 by voting down Scott County’s attempt to reopen discussions.

Still, Ciliberto, in his Nov. 9 letter, continued to assert that the Met Council had bypassed the TAB. “You suggest that … the TAB is merely another commenting public body and not a reviewer of the public comment,” he wrote.

There’s more background in this previous Cityscape.