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State of the Region? Our future is all about transit

Wikimedia Commons/August Schwerdfeger
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."

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.”

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.”

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/12/2013 - 11:39 am.

    Transit Tax

    Other cities, such as Dallas, have a 1¢ transit tax. It kind of makes our quarter cent tax look pretty paltry.

    • Submitted by Scott Wood on 02/13/2013 - 12:00 am.

      Other sources of revenue

      While I support increasing the transit sales tax here, it should be noted that transit in Minnesota has other sources of tax income, such as the statewide motor vehicle sales tax and state general fund expenditures,. In Texas, transit gets what it can raise from the local transit sales tax, and that’s about it (ignoring Federal expenditures in both cases).

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/12/2013 - 01:58 pm.

    We need more

    Bigger. Better. Faster. Cheaper.

    Bigger: The size of the transit network necessary to make the Twin Cities significantly less dependent upon the automobile. MUCH bigger.

    Better: The quality of service provided by that transit network, in terms of both convenience for users and reliability of service.

    Faster: The time span in which this transit network ought to be built, as well as the speed with which the system operates.

    Cheaper: The daily cost of transit use, once we get over the hurdle of the intimidating figures necessary to rebuild, in many cases, a network destroyed to make the area easier to navigate for automobiles, which are increasingly less desirable as a primary mode of transportation.

    Do these items make sprawl, water quality and affordable housing less a part of the big picture? On the contrary, bigger, better, faster, cheaper REQUIRE less sprawl, more affordable housing, and an improvement in water quality, since transit use implies more density for suburbs and better use of existing density in the urban core. Fewer wells. More water treatment.

    The quarter-cent sales tax isn’t enough, I agree, but we have to start somewhere. The alternative is for the Twin Cities, and Minnesota, to find themselves hopelessly out of date and out of touch with an economy over which we have little control, but which continues to exhibit plenty of signs of volatility and change. The C of C is, as usual, thinking more of quarterly earnings sheets, which primarily benefit select individuals, than the long-term economic and social health of the region, which affect everyone.

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 02/12/2013 - 03:13 pm.

    Locating Young Workers

    Don’t doubt the ability of transit to attract talent or the lack of it to push it away. I have seen it at the company I work for.

    I work at a very high-tech company and several times managers have told me that applicants didn’t take a job offer because of our lack of transit. This is real. We really are losing talent to other regions with much better transportation options.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/12/2013 - 04:05 pm.

    Is the increasing use of transit

    by younger workers the result of a philosophy or economics, driven by flat or declining earnings?

    • Submitted by David Greene on 02/12/2013 - 04:51 pm.

      Philosophy, Mainly

      Karen is right that it’s both economics and philosophy, but I believe it is much more philosophy than economics. I have heard your students testify at the state legislature that they want to stay here but are drawn to regions with transit because of the quality of life improvements.

      Young people have a very different mindset from that of their parents and it isn’t just a reactionary thing. They have thought very deeply about this and have concluded that they prefer urban living with convenient amenities and many transportation options.

      I’m a bit of an outlier in my own generation. We were probably the last to embrace the “old way” and thus as an urban resident myself, some of my peers are still a bit puzzled about why I’d live in Minneapolis and want to ride the bus.

      But I see the young people moving into our neighborhoods and they have a decidedly different view on what makes a quality life. A much more healthy one, I think.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/13/2013 - 08:02 am.


        One of my middle aged coworkers chooses not to have a car and instead walks or takes the bus around town. He could easily afford a car, but doesn’t want one because of the expense associated with it.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/12/2013 - 04:29 pm.

    I’d say both

    On the whole, young people have been exposed to environmental concerns longer than we older people have, and they may have done the math and realized that they can save literally thousands of dollars per year by not driving. (Even with a car “inherited” from a relative and working out of home, I spend about $3000 a year on gas, insurance, and repairs. It would be more like $5000 or $6000 if I had to buy a new car.)

  6. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 02/12/2013 - 05:02 pm.

    Marlys Harris writes…

    “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.”

    Why does Ms Harris have her doubts? This statement is just incongruous with most of her other columns that tell us transit development makes a livable community, one that includes jobs.

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