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Is transit governance really broken? Or is it just a victim of 'Pawlenty paradox'?

Apple Valley passengers board a Minnesota Valley Transit Authority bus in downtown Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Apple Valley passengers board a Minnesota Valley Transit Authority bus in downtown Minneapolis.

Media headlines might leave the impression that the Legislative Auditor has uncovered something sinister or dysfunctional about mass transit in the metro region, but that's not the case. The auditor's report, issued last week, concludes that buses and trains operate at a high degree of efficiency and customer satisfaction.

What the report [PDF] does expose is an overly complex governance structure for transit. Unfortunately, it fails to explain fully the biggest reason for that complexity, so I'll try to fill in the blanks. Three words will help get us started; they are Tim Pawlenty and paradox.

By the 1990s it was clear that Minneapolis-St. Paul had fallen at least a decade behind its competitors in building a modern transit network and synchronizing that network to nearby economic development. Gov. Jesse Ventura began to change that with the building of Hiawatha, the region's first light rail line. Hiawatha opened to rave reviews in 2004 and the public began to anticipate more lines. Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties and the Metropolitan Council staff drew maps and ramped up their studies of new corridors. At long last, transit had momentum.

But there was a problem: no money. Unlike its competitors, MSP had no ongoing funding source (like a dedicated sales tax) to expand its system. We were, as they say in Texas, "all hat, no cattle." That made us an unreliable partner for the federal government in future transit ventures. Expansion was stymied.

Just lines on paper
Pawlenty was no help. Elected in 2002, he had begun to see the advantages of adding transit lines, but was unwilling to pay for them, holding on to his pledge not to raise taxes. That put his appointees and staff at the Met Council in a tough spot. They could see clearly the need for expansion but couldn't advocate paying for new lines without defying their boss. Their "system" was a paper tiger — just lines on map with no realistic prospect of getting built.

The Legislature had no choice, really, but to make the Met Council "an honest man." In 2008, it overrode Pawlenty's veto and allowed metro counties to raise the local sales tax by a quarter-cent. That led to the question was who should administer the new revenue? Should it be the Met Council, which ran the transit system but opposed expansion? Or should it be the counties that supported the new tax?

It wasn't that hard a decision. Five participating counties created a joint-powers board, the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), to do the job that the Met Council couldn't do: select and finance new lines.

So, that's one governance complexity. The auditor highlighted two others.

One is the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), a committee that helps the Met Council select transportation projects. The only reason the TAB exists is to provide elected officials (the Met Council is appointed) to satisfy a federal requirement for the receipt of federal transportation money.

The other major complexity involves "opt-out" suburbs that started their own bus operations beginning in the early 1980s. A rivalry has since developed between the opt-out bus lines and Metro Transit, which provides more than 90 percent of the region's service.

'Fraught with distrust'?
Various county rail authorities and other players add to a governance mix that the Legislative Auditor describes as "fraught with distrust." Tensions between the Met Council and the suburban opt-outs run especially high, according to the report. "Bluntly stated, the relationship … has broken down," it concluded. As for transit planning, the auditor detected differences between CTIB's and the Met Council's priorities on new lines.

On that I agree with Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who told the House Transportation Committee on Monday that those differences are "overstated." In fact, their priorities are nearly identical.

The auditor's main recommendation is to revamp the 17-member Met Council to include a mix of gubernatorial appointees and locally elected officials. That way the council will have more credibility with voters, and some accountability, too. The auditor sees that as a first step to further reform, perhaps ending with a consolidation of transit governance.

I think it's a good idea to include elected officials on the Met Council as long as their representation is based on population. (Hennepin County has nine times more people than Scott County, for example.) But transit governance is hardly the Met Council's greatest flaw.

• It should be more assertive on tying transit lines to land use and economic development — especially jobs.

• It should work harder on infilling older areas as a way to foster efficiency, environmental stewardship and cost savings for governments and residents.

• And it should understand that it's not just an operator of metro "systems" like transit and wastewater but a marketing agent for a "place" that needs to compete with other similar places in order to maximize opportunity and prosperity for its residents.

Reports galore
Other new reports that deserve a look:

The Texas Transportation Institute released 2009 numbers on metro traffic congestion across the country. Turns out that the rise of heavy auto traffic has slowed a bit. Still, Americans in 439 urban areas still spent an additional 4.8 billion hours in traffic than they did in 2008 and bought 3.9 billion additional gallons of fuel at an extra cost of $115 billion — not exactly chump change.

Chicago and Washington, D.C. were rated the most congested metro areas. MSP ranked 12th, slightly better than Atlanta and Seattle. Still, the average MSP commuter wasted 43 hours is rush-hour traffic snarls in 2009, at an average cost of $970 per driver.

The Brookings Institution, meanwhile, tracked another kind of mobility. The movement of people among U.S. metro areas continued to stall, probably due to crises in housing and employment. Fewer young workers were attracted to previous hot spots like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Riverside, Calif. Only Austin, Tex., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. continued to attract large numbers of young professionals, although Denver, Seattle and Portland continued to do well. The brain drain slowed in Cleveland and Buffalo, probably because of housing and job problems. MSP was ranked along with Columbus and Pittsburgh as cities that changed brain drains into slight gains in recent years.

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Comments (4)

Having elected Met Council members (whether existing elected officials or new elected positions) is a fine idea, but I'm not sure I agree with the proportional representation idea. The Met Council exists to plan for the region. Proportional representation has the potential to devolve the Met Council into a body that fights geography battles every day. We're already seeing this with CTIB. It's true that low-population areas shouldn't dictate how the region grows but neither should Hennepin County be allowed to grab the lion's share of planning and infrastructure dollars.

Just as the Twin Cities is far behind our peer regions in transit service, so too is the east metro far behind the west metro. And it's falling further behind.

I don't have the answer to exactly how the Met Council should be structured, but it needs to be regionally focused and not fall into geographic squabbling.

I would argue that the seeds for our complex transit governance were sown back in the early 70s. When it created the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the legislature directed the MTC to "plan an integrated mass transit system for the complete Twin Cities region." The MTC quickly earned a nationwide reputation for progressive transit planning and research. Steve Lockwood, a transportation policy analyst based in DC, told me some years ago that we had set the standard for transit planning in the country for years to come. He asked me what had happened.

The MTC was required to have its capital plans approved by the Met Council. David Graven, a key player at both the Council and the Citizens League, chaired a committee that refused to review MTC plans and the Met Council developed its own plan relying only on better bus service.

The February 26, 1973 St. Paul Dispatch printed an editorial titled "Met Council Arrogance". It criticized the Council for wasting money developing its own transit plan and called on the legislature to straighten things out. But the legislature simply gave the Met Council the authority to appoint all MTC commissioners. Before that it had been a COG-like structure. MTC plans were quickly dropped and the Twin Cities began a quarter-century in which we were told that better bus service was all we needed. A June 21, 1977 editorial in the Minneapolis Tribune accused the Met Council of appointing MTC commissioners based on political patronage rather than special knowledge of transit.

By the mid-80s, it was realized that it would be wise to purchase rail corridors that were being abandoned in order to save them for future transit use. The legislature authorized counties to establish regional railroad authorities for that purpose. That was the first layer of complexity in transit governance. The RRAs quickly became the lead advocates for light rail as a part of our transit system.

The Met Council's lack of interest in moving forward on transit has led to the establishment of multiple agencies as a work around.

I often agree with David Greene, but not this time (#1), at least not very much. While Hennepin County doesn’t necessarily have to be the 500-pound bully in the room, with 9 times the population of a bordering county, there’s nothing wrong – and much that’s right, in terms of fairness of representation – with Hennepin County having a stronger voice than Scott County. I would guess that 9 times the population means, if not 9 times, then at least substantially more fiscal support for Met Council and Met-area transit coming from Hennepin County than from Scott County. Counties in the outer fringe shouldn’t be ignored, but the whole idea is to serve to maximum number of people with the most cost-effectiveness possible, and if most of the people live in area ‘x’, that area deserves extra attention and support.

That said, and speaking as a newbie who doesn’t know all the details, my impression of the east metro transit situation IS pretty much in agreement with David’s comment that it’s behind the west metro. The disparity shouldn’t be allowed to continue to grow.

Thanks to John DeWitt for the history lesson. Always useful to know the back story.

I wholeheartedly agree with Steve’s 3rd point. Much of what I read in the planning literature makes the point, over and over, that metro areas will be the economic engines of the future, even more so than states. The Twin Cities will be competing for jobs, resources and prosperity against those same metro areas with which this area is often compared – Denver, Seattle, etc. – and it behooves metro area (and state) leaders to keep that notion in the forefront of their considerations.

I probably don't need to point this out, Steve, but the TTI numbers are horribly, fatally flawed:

Using them as anything other than an indicator of highway congestion is giving them too much credit.