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State of the Region? Our future is all about transit

The State of the Region assessment, held at the newly renovated Union Depot in St. Paul, had a celebratory air – but challenges loom.

Met council chair Susan Haigh: "Today this building offers service to Jefferson Lines and Metro Transit buses. Later this year, it will add Amtrak. Next year, Green Line trains will arrive."
Wikimedia Commons/August Schwerdfeger

Last week we heard Gov. Mark Dayton deliver the State of the State address. (“We are on the way to a better Minnesota.”) Tonight, President Obama is on deck with the State of the Union. (We don’t know what he’ll say yet, but for viewers, comedian Will Durst offers a rather complicated SOTU drinking game.) On Monday came another seasonal assessment: the State of the Region from Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council.

The affair, which was held at the newly renovated Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, had a celebratory air. Coming to fruition after years of struggle over financing, were a batch of significant transit achievements.

“Today this building offers service to Jefferson Lines and Metro Transit buses,” said Haigh. “Later this year, it will add Amtrak. Next year, Green Line trains will arrive.” She then permitted herself a “Yay!”

To accentuate the good news, Golden’s Deli and SugaRush, whose businesses had been messed with for nearly two years by the Green Line’s construction, provided coffee, fruit and doughnuts the size of dessert plates.

Not keeping up

Following the traditional “state of” practice, Haigh’s pronouncement of success came with a “but,” and it was this: “Our investments in transit are not keeping up with demands and growth in the region.”

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Her reasoning: Cell phones, email and the like enable people, particularly young people, to work and live anywhere. “These workers pick a city based on its amenities and a home based on the express bus or rail line closest to their doorstep,” she said.

I have doubts. In this economy, people tend to go where the job is, no matter how inimical their surroundings or arduous the means of getting there. But, there are some data to support Haigh’s contention. Transportation and the New Generation, a 2012 report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, found that Americans as a whole have been driving less, with young people leading the trend. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by those aged 16 to 34 decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita — a drop of 23 percent.

A doubling in the number of seniors, many of them unwilling or unable to drive, added Haigh, will also place a premium on public transportation. “These changes will cause demands on our transit system to explode exponentially,” she said.

A kind of man- and woman-in-the-street video showed area residents praising the Twin Cities for its strong business community, lively arts and theater scene and educated work force but pointedly referring to “gaps in transportation.”

Leading questions

A panel of three — Colleen Carey, president of the Cornerstone Group, a Richfield developer of multi-family housing; Asad Aliweyd, executive director of the New American Academy, an Eden Prairie organization that serves the Somali community; and Paul Williams, St. Paul deputy mayor — answered leading questions from Haigh, for example: “Could you give us your general impression of the importance of transit as it relates to the regional and local economy.”

The most interesting points (in my opinion) came from Williams, who noted that having transit nearby makes it easier for would-be homeowners to qualify for a mortgage. Bankers now figure the cost of transportation along with the amount of PITI (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) when considering an applicant for a loan. Not having to own and run a car allows a family to fit a mortgage payment into the budget more easily. Second, development of housing near transit is less expensive because builders need not provide so much parking.

Amid all the talk about transit, we heard nary a word about affordable housing, even though the Metro Housing and Redevelopment Authority has a waiting list of 1,500 families and hasn’t been able to accept applications for five years. Nor did Haigh mention sprawl or water quality, two other elements in the Met Council’s portfolio.

It suppose that she can be forgiven on two counts. The Met Council is currently working on Thrive MSP 2040, its grand plan for the next three decades, which is to be presented in the spring of 2014. Presumably, this all-encompassing uber-document will cover those items and more. And, in his budget Dayton proposed a rather impressive plan providing a permanent source of funding for transit, to wit, a quarter-cent sales tax assessed in the seven-county metro region. The Met Council estimates that it could produce $250 million a year, enough to build out other LRT lines, add bus rapid transit and streetcars.

“Get on board,” Haigh urged her listeners — meaning, I assume, on the bandwagon for Dayton’s proposal. “If you are tired of gimmicks and one-time fixes that keep our transit system afloat but never get us ahead, we need you on board.”

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Political reality suggests, however, that even if everybody gets on board with the sales tax, transit won’t see $250 million. That estimate depends on the governor’s proposal to broaden the sales tax to include business-to-business services. Already the Chamber of Commerce has announced its opposition. If they and other groups   succeed either in defeating the measure or scaling it back, transit would receive perhaps half as much. To raise enough money to really do the job in that case might require the governor to push for a sales tax hike of a half a cent.

At this point, it’s not clear whether he would be on board with that.