“Nixon-to-China” describes a kind of ironic success, a moment in history when the greatest progress stems from the least likely source.
Tim Pawlenty’s move into the governor’s office in 2003 was taken as a threat of sorts to the Twin Cities’ 35-year experiment in metropolitan government. As a Republican legislative leader, Pawlenty had never had much use for this “extra layer of bureaucracy” or for its most visible product, public transit. But he tapped Peter Bell to head the Metropolitan Council, and now, eight years later, the regional structure is arguably stronger than before, and an expanded transit system is widely seen as an important partner in region’s economic development.
Bell goes so far as to describe these last eight years as “a golden age for transit,” ticking off as evidence the opening of the Hiawatha and Northstar rail lines, the start of construction and planning for the Central and Southwest corridors, the impending launch of Bus Rapid Transit, the doubling of park-and-ride stations and the overall rise in ridership numbers.
While the outgoing administration can’t fairly claim credit for all of those projects (many were accomplished over Pawlenty’s veto), transit gained impressive ground during Bell’s tenure. Moreover, the principle of metropolitan planning itself was preserved, thanks to his aggressive defense in a landmark court case (City of Lake Elmo v. Metropolitan Council, 2003-04) that sought to strip away the council’s planning authority. Bell’s hard work, grace under pressure and even-handed approach have earned respect and admiration across party lines, even at a time of deep partisan fissure.
We caught up with Bell at a coffee shop in Uptown Minneapolis last week to review his years at the council. Here are edited excerpts:
MinnPost: I can’t quite get past the Nixon-to-China metaphor. Hasn’t your tenure left liberals relieved and conservatives disappointed that you didn’t dismantle this whole regional enterprise? And, if that’s so, what’s your reaction?
Peter Bell: (Laughing) I know the center is in disrepute right now in both parties, but in my heart I’m a moderate conservative. I’m a center-right kind of guy with all the implications of that. So I don’t have any trouble with the transit agenda, for example. In fact, I champion that. And I don’t have any trouble with the way we do land planning. As I’ve said, I think there are two organizing principles around land planning. One is the efficient use of infrastructure. The other is the more social, dilution-of-poverty agenda. I tend to be much more supportive of the former than the latter, although I’m not disdainful of the latter. I just have many more questions about its efficacy, both for its intended beneficiaries and for the politics of it.
MP: Well, let’s go into that. Your critics on the left point out that the metro region has continued to spread out at a rapid rate and that that proves the Met Council’s land planning policies have failed. They also have maps to show that one consequence of sprawl has been the thinning out and impoverishment of large portions of the core cities and inner suburbs. How do you respond?
PB: As I’ve said, there are two rationales for land planning. One is efficiency of infrastructure. The second has to do with relieving poverty. The first one I feel good about. What we’re doing with the transit corridors — Northstar, Hiawatha, Central and Southwest — will lay the groundwork for sustainable communities, housing, economic development and energy conservation.
Should we be stronger in pressing the issue of efficiency? I think we need to strike a balance that respects local autonomy. If we push our authority too hard it would sow the seeds of our own destruction. It’s a little like football. You take what the defense gives you. If we put 500 affordable housing units in Farmington, for example, I think that would further drive outward expansion.
On the concerns about deeply troubled communities, I have questions about what planning can do about that. I think there are more effective strategies that don’t carry so much political baggage.
MP: What would those be?
PB: I’m a big supporter of charter schools and of taking kids out of troubled families much earlier. And I think that the culture has got to change. That’s one reason I’m on the center right. I think that families and communities are organic and that synthetic interventions aren’t going to make much headway. We have to look inward to solve our fundamental problems. There are severe limits to what government can do. Government should stick to what it knows how to do — which is why I’m a big believer in infrastructure and parks rather than social remedies.
MP: What about using planning to create a more welcoming environment for the middle class to remain in the cities. Wouldn’t that help solve problems in troubled neighborhoods?
PB: On the margin, perhaps. But the idea that you can surround five troubled kids with kids from stable backgrounds and improve things might be a little naïve. The reverse is just as likely to happen. And how many middle class parents are going to take the risk? So, I think it’s unrealistic … and I also agree with the idea that I should be able to live anywhere I want if I can afford it, and that’s a pretty deep article of faith with me.
MP: Switching gears, you’ve referred to your tenure as the golden age of transit in past tense. Do you think that the momentum will be slowed primarily for budgetary reasons or will anti-transit ideology make a comeback?
PB: Overwhelmingly it will be for budgetary considerations. Will there be some retrenchment? Possibly. But things won’t go back to the place they were eight years ago. We have made permanent gains. Transit has never been more broadly accepted by the public and by policymakers. I was fortunate to have good circumstances on transit. I had a Republican governor who ended up supporting much of the transit agenda and Republicans in the Legislature who didn’t push back heavily.
MP: Tell me about the governor. He was not a supporter of Hiawatha.
PB: He told me about his misgivings but said that it had gone too far to stop, and so he wanted it completed the best way possible. He also gave us support on Lake Elmo [a court case that challenged the legitimacy of the Met Council to override local zoning decisions]. That was another stake in the ground. On the other hand, we didn’t want to push the council into mission creep, or into new, uncharted areas. My view was never to embarrass the governor and to realize that it was my job to get along with him, not the other way around. I didn’t go to him very often, maybe five or six times.
MP: Was that because metro issues weren’t high on his list of priorities?
PB: My agency was never a major priority. I had a sense of where his comfort level was, and I didn’t want to push the envelope … One result is that the council has never been more popular than it is today.
MP: So you concentrated on managing transit, sewers and the other systems and didn’t get too adventuresome.
PB: That’s fair to say, although we did have ambitions on transit and parks.
MP: How did it feel to have the governor veto the transportation bill that included your top transit priorities?
PB: It was a very difficult time for me. I understood that it was part of a larger strategy, but it was extremely difficult. I’m happy it all worked out.
MP: Why did you make the Central Corridor your top priority?
PB: There was a convergence of factors. I was deeply committed to its merits. First, the ridership potential was very high, so I had confidence that it would work. Second, it had the power to revitalize University Avenue, and I think it will be a major catalyst there. Third, I had grown up in the area and knew the players involved. (Bell grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, six blocks off of University Avenue.) Finally, the politics were right. It was St. Paul’s turn and Ramsey County was for it. I continue to consider it the most complex project, both in financing and engineering, that the state has ever undertaken.
MP: Did you feel a personal stake because of how another infrastructure project — Interstate Hwy. 94 — had damaged Rondo?
PB: What happened with 94 was unconscionable, but I don’t think it applies to Central. One thing I’ve learned is that people try to connect unconnectable dots. I don’t fully buy the argument that Rondo would have been totally different and healthy if not for the freeway coming through. There were other things happening, too. And there are many troubled urban neighborhoods that never had a freeway problem.
MP: Then there was the University of Minnesota. We’re you surprised that the U became such an obstacle — and gave you so much trouble, especially considering you are a former regent?
PB: The U had legitimate concerns over vibration and other technical matters, but they seriously overplayed their hand. They came across as a public entity that thought it was first among equals. They asked for things — like the northern alignment — that were never going to happen. What hurt most was that we were the agency with responsibility for the line, but they didn’t believe us. So they spent over a year — and over $1 million — hiring consultants and checking our math. And in the end it wasn’t smart and it wasn’t respectful.
MP: They came across as arrogant and looking a gift horse in the mouth?
PB: I agree with that. They also wanted to exert tremendous control over our transit system. How many buses? How fast they could go? They wanted a free fare zone. They had a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But at the end of the day, we got it done, and that’s all the public should care about. I came away with respect for the U.
MP: In the Lake Elmo case, you opposed a suburb that didn’t want to grow enough to take full advantage of infrastructure. Did you ever oppose a suburb that wanted to grow too much?
PB: No. Although we have told them that if they grow they should understand that their roads will be congested. We’re constrained by the budget from building the megaprojects that they want.
MP: You’ve resisted suggestions that the Met Council get directly involved in economic development. Why?
PB: Because we wanted to avoid mission creep. And because I think it’s unwise for government to pick winners and losers. That’s better handled by the private sector. Look at what Minneapolis did on Block E, for example. It’s a disaster and a misallocation of resources.
MP: If not economic development, would you consider setting development goals? You’ve done that for transit ridership. So why not set goals on reducing vehicle miles traveled, or goals on the repopulation of the central cities, or the densification of certain corridors?
PB: Yes, I’d be open to that, and I think my successor should pursue that. I think global warming is real and that our manmade environment has had an impact on that. How we live our lives affects the climate in unpredictable ways, and we need to look at our lives. On VMT (vehicle miles traveled) I favor a tiered approach. Maybe communities could align their development to whether they wanted to reduce VMT, keep it the same or increase it. Those are metrics that a lot of communities would respond to. We should try that before we set [metrowide] goals and targets.
MP: What will the metro region be like in 30 years?
PB: We’ll be more densely developed. Land dynamics and housing process will force that. We’ll have three light rail lines, Hiawatha, Central and Southwest. We’ll have no additional commuter rail, but maybe four or five Bus Rapid Transit lines. We’ll have a larger regional park system. With the new parks foundation our goal is to expand from 55,000 acres to 70,000 acres of parkland. I see the council itself evolving as a hybrid. We won’t be fully elected, but maybe county boards will nominate members to be appointed by the governor. I think the governor should appoint the chair.
MP: I know you work more than full time, but technically it’s a part-time job paying less than $60,000 a year. Should the job be full time?
PB: Yes, I’d support that change.
MP: Are you really an extra layer of government?
PB: We have 182 municipalities and seven counties. I think we’ve operated in an extremely prudent manner, keeping the property tax levy flat for seven years. That’s efficient government. Sometimes I wonder (laughing) whether we’re really the superfluous layer or if it’s the other way around.