MnDOT develops 50-year vision for transportation in Minnesota

In 1971, when I first started covering state government, Minnesota’s transportation agency was still called the “Highway Department.”

That name accurately described the department’s chief interest and expertise — building roads and bridges. The department had an assistant commissioner for “transportation system planning,” but other modes of transportation were very much a secondary consideration.

In 1976, the Legislature renamed it the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and assigned it transportation-related responsibilities that previously had been performed by the former Department of Aeronautics, the State Planning Agency and the Public Service Department.

But large institutions are slow to change, and MnDOT regularly has been assailed by critics for focusing too much on roads and bridges, on concrete and asphalt. It was not until last year that the department established its Office of Multimodal Planning.

This office, headed by Mark Nelson, is now leading an effort to develop a 50-year vision for all forms of transportation in the state. Nelson and Commissioner Tom Sorel say this vision will serve as the foundation for the department’s 20-year multimodal transportation plan, as well as its investment plans for highways and other transportation modes.

Tom Sorel
Tom Sorel

The vision was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday in St. Paul that escaped the attention of all but a few reporters. Though members of the public were invited to testify via video conference at any of 12 locations around the state, just one person appeared to comment in the first 45 minutes of the hearing.

Sorel said some 8,000 Minnesotans had participated in earlier meetings on the document and that the hearing was “a continuation of our efforts to get public input.”

The vision, decidedly general in its content, emphasizes that transportation is not an end to itself. It seeks to maximize the state’s economic competitiveness, environmental health and quality of life.

It includes some lofty goals, such as:

•  Maintaining an integrated network of streets, roads and highways that “collectively support freight, mass transit, personal vehicles and non-motorized transportation.”

•  “Reliable and affordable transit options for people who cannot or choose not to operate a personal vehicle.”

•  “Connected options to walk and bike for everyone choosing active forms of transportation.”

•  “Zero deaths or serious injuries … in any form of transportation.

Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, applauds the planning effort, but questions whether the state can provide transit for everyone or eliminate transportation fatalities.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever have enough money to do that,” she says.

Most importantly, perhaps, the vision indicates that the department is preparing to adjust to changing realities. It describes nine “challenges and opportunities” in the decades ahead that will likely affect transportation needs as well as the state’s ability to meet them.

These forces include:

Aging population: As baby boomers retire and enter their 70s, 80s and 90s, transportation patterns are likely to change and many more seniors will “seek alternatives to driving their own vehicle.”

Increased urbanization: The trend of population shifting from rural areas to urban centers is likely to continue, increasing the demand “for more urban forms of transportation.”

Energy shifts: Rising fuel prices is likely to accelerate the trend toward more energy-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles, increasing the demand for electricity and recharging stations. While the vision doesn’t say so, this trend also would affect highway revenues from the existing motor fuel taxes.

Health care factors: To combat obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses, health advocates likely will continue to push for greater transportation investments that encourage active lifestyles, such as walking and biking.

Changing work environments: More businesses and jobs are likely to turn to telecommuting and working from home. Remote access to health care and other services also could increase – all of this affecting travel patterns and possibly easing congestion in urban areas.

Budget constraints: “For the foreseeable future, governments at all levels will experience ongoing budget challenges.”

Suffice it to say, the old Highway Department has come a long way. Today’s transportation planners are thinking about far more than roads and bridges.

“The department has been moving that way for a long time, so I don’t think this document represents a huge change,” says Donahoe. “But I think it’s great that the department is thinking long-term.”

If you wish to weigh in on the department’s vision, written comments will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 21.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 10/06/2011 - 10:02 am.

    If you want zero deaths you have to prioritize safety over speed. A pedestrian hit at 15 mph will likely survive without major injuries. At 25 mph, they will have a good chance of being dead. There is little doubt that if we designed our transportation facilities for lower speeds we would reduce the number of injuries and deaths. And they would cost less, not more.

    Count me as a skeptic that this is anything more than lip service from the traffic engineers. They continue to focus on getting people from here to there, without any concern for the here, there or in between. Ask them to design their facilities to make it more convenient, safer and easier for people to access facilities across them and they say “this is a state highway”. Apparently the assumption is that defines its only role as moving vehicles along it.

    We have traffic lights in Grand Rapids that require pedestrians to wait through two cycles to cross the street and never change at all unless the button is pushed. I was told by one traffic engineer to just ride my bike through the red light at night since it wouldn’t change. This is all part of a new, improved facility built in the last two years.

    They are now planning on closing several streets along Highway 169 in order to eliminate the unmarked crosswalks so that pedestrians will have to walk several blocks out of their way to legally cross the street. That is the idea for pedestrian safety, make it so inconvenient and unpleasant for pedestrians that they stay out of the way.

    What is needed is to redefine the mission of transportation from moving vehicles and people, to giving people and businesses better access to the goods and services they need. Instead when MnDOT talks about “access management”, they are invariably talking about reducing access to increase traffic flows.

  2. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 10/06/2011 - 01:30 pm.

    I have to say that I expected something much more in-depth than just two or three lists of bullet points. We should be able to do some actual planning on a 40, 50-, or 60-year timescale — certainly things would need to be somewhat vague, but they’d have more detail than this. Politicians often only think as far as the next election, so I suppose Mn/DOT feels they do well when they make 10-, 20-, and 30-year plans, but those often only account for a single life cycle of a roadway or other transportation system. Today we’re dealing with crumbling infrastructure built by the last two or three generations, and I don’t want to keep kicking that stuff down the road to tarnish my legacy.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/07/2011 - 08:41 am.

    The zero deaths thing is absurd. Safety isn’t purely an engineering problem, as long as human beings are using the transit system there will be fatalities. Hell, you put down barriers with bells and flashing lights all over the place and people just drive or walk around them and killed anyways. You can’t stop people from making bad choices or doing stupid things. Making something like that one of only four big ideas really undermines confidence in the process. It looks like something that will be used as an excuse to NOT things, after all, what mode of transport is completely safe? They be better off with just first three principles.

  4. Submitted by William Pappas on 10/10/2011 - 07:36 pm.

    I agree with you Mr. Hicks. That wasn’t much information. The last I heard of their vision it involved not developing any more major Highway corridors or increasing them in scale. This would hopefully discourage unfettered sprawl and reduce the incredible maintenance cost of freeways. Reading their new objectives and vision I’m absolutely stumped as to why they would want to build a 700 million dollar St. Croix River crossing that does nothing but encourage sprawl into Wisconsin and only benefits shopowners in downtown Stillwater along with a few thousand people in and around New Richmond and Sommerset. For that cost they could have sent an LRT line nearly all the way to Stillwater from the capital. The absurd and obscene cost of the St. Croix crossing not only contradicts their own transportation vision for the next two decades, it is fiscally wreckless. The department still has a long way to go in recovering from the Molnau effect of political neglect and incredible lack of leadership.

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