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10 priorities for the new Met Council

From strengthening the urban core to realigning the council to new realities, a few suggestions for the incoming Chair Susan Haigh.

Susan Haigh
Metropolitan Council
Susan Haigh

A new administration expects to get suggestions, so today, as Susan Haigh is sworn in as chair of the Metropolitan Council, maybe she and her staff will forgive me for offering a few of my own. Here are 10 priorities that the new council should consider:
 
1. Pilates. For decades, the council’s policies — whatever its intentions — have resulted in strengthening the metro region’s periphery. In anatomical terms, Minneapolis-St. Paul has developed some of the strongest fingers and toes in the country while allowing its midsection to atrophy in relative terms. But, as any conditioning coach or urban geographer will tell you, core strength is vital to the health of the whole body. Even if metro region’s periphery is strong, a weak core hurts the overall competitive posture.

New census data suggest that MSP’s core is remarkably weaker than its surroundings and that a Pilates regimen of sorts may be needed to restore its core strength. The median household income in Minneapolis and St. Paul is 30 percent below that of the metro as a whole. Virtually all growth in population, wealth and job expansion has come at the edge.  MSP’s peer competitors — metro areas like Denver, Seattle and Portland — show more balanced geographic patterns with stronger core districts and far less disparity on race, income and geography.

Meliorating the problem will be difficult, given that political power has shifted so dramatically to the outer suburbs. But, for the sake of the whole region, the Met Council must find a way to strengthen the metro’s core neighborhoods.

2. Competitiveness. Past councils have been reluctant to explain the importance of modern transit service and the need for orderly, efficient growth. The answer is that each is a building block for MSP’s future prosperity. Especially now, as the region tries to gain a toe-hold in a changing and recovering economy, and as state and federal governments buckle under enormous budget pressures, it’s good to explain that the metro region needs mobility, attractive communities and efficient development patterns to compete in an emerging marketplace that will sort winners and losers.

3. Metrics. Measuring progress toward goals is a big part of running a business, and the same should be true for metro government. While the council keeps many statistics, it would be wise to expand and refocus measurements in ways that match the needs of a changing world, a world in which reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and increasing infrastructure efficiency has become imperative.

Among the questions that should be asked and measured against goals: How many miles per day did the average motorist drive last year? What percentage of commuters took transit? What was the ratio of infill development to green-field development? What percentage of new jobs were created in transit corridors? What percentage of new housing was added in transit corridors? What progress was made in repopulating the central cities? What progress was made in reducing the median income gap between the central cities and the metro as a whole? Answers to those questions over time would allow Minnesotans to measure the council’s performance with an eye toward the big challenges of the day. In 2009, the Legislature ordered a report on some of those questions. Results are due next week. Check out a draft report on this page. (It’s the Oct. 15 PDF.)  

4. Transit protection. Federal and state budgets are in terrible shape. With politicians reluctant to raise taxes or to cut middle class entitlements, and with education and social services holding a moral claim on spending, cuts to infrastructure (including transit) are likely to be brutal and unprecedented. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a Met Council that will keep the Central and Southwest light rail corridors alive, will fight attempts to cannibalize the bus system and will work hard at balancing the needs of labor with the need to maintain an acceptable level of transit service.

5. Transit-oriented development. The best way to save energy, diminish pollution and cut long-term costs is to gradually redesign communities in ways that reduce the need to drive long distances many times a day. “Transit oriented development” is a term often used to describe this redesigned landscape. It’s not just a matter of locating homes and shops near transit stations and creating walkable neighborhoods. It’s establishing a new (or is it old?) mindset. And it’s recognizing that the current auto-only development pattern is fortified by an imbedded system of tax laws, zoning and parking regulations, street specifications and other rules that prevent changing the way cities are built. The council should consider an audit of those local regulations with an eye toward future reform. One especially welcome change would be to allow a new kind of tax increment financing as an incentive for transit oriented development (TIF for TOD).

6. Efficiency. It’s my favorite word in this debate because it matches the needs of the times and should appeal to all political sides. A less spread-out metro area allows more use of the infrastructure already in place and less need to break new ground and add expensive roads, sewers and other utilities. That’s a conservative value that everyone can embrace.

7. A Vikings stadium. If one is built, it should be built where transportation and other public infrastructure has already been provided. The new Twins’ ballpark shows clearly the value of using transit to help manage large crowds. State law allows the council to review decisions of “metropolitan significance.” The location of a Vikings stadium could be such a decision.

8. Expansion and identity. The council covers only seven of the 13 metro counties included in the official federal designation. Expanding its jurisdiction would be difficult. But the council would avoid ongoing confusion if it referred to its territory as the seven-county area or the inner metro instead of calling it “the metropolitan area” — which it’s not.

9. Full-time job. Former chairman Peter Bell was right; chairing the council is a fulltime, cabinet-level position.

10. Adjust to a changing market. Conditions have changed dramatically since the council’s founding in 1967. While some adjustments in structure and responsibility have been made over the years, it’s time to realign the council to new realities: big demographic shifts in population; a slower place of public and private investment; and concerns about energy, security, climate, sustainability and affordability. Closer links among transportation, land use, economic development and job growth are imperative. We live in an ecosystem of interconnections. Two good discussions on that topic:  “Planning to Succeed? An Assessment of Transportation and Land Use Decision-Making in the Twin Cities Region” by the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, Transit for Livable Communities and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy [PDF] and “Charting a New Course: Restoring Job Growth in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Region” by the Itasca Project [PDF].