My planned topic for today: New Year’s resolutions for the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. What should we be doing to make our people more prosperous, our streets safer and our vistas lovelier to look upon?
I immediately realized, however, that by creating such a list, I would be setting our entire region up for failure — just as I do myself each new year when I pledge to lose weight, exercise regularly, watch less TV and meet all my deadlines (like that will ever happen).
And, as it turns out, the Metropolitan Council is already on top of the region’s quest for perfection — or improvement, anyway. Every 10 years it scopes out trends and problems we’re likely to face over the next 30 years and develops guidance for cities and towns in transportation, water management and air quality that align with the overall goals for the region. Typical issue: with more people, how do we insure that we don’t drain all our lakes to slake their thirst, bathe and wash their clothes?
The Council’s most recent effort, Thrive MSP 2040, got underway a few years ago and a preliminary plan is already out. The entire process should wrap up in 2018, just in time to start Success 2050 or whatever the council calls the next iteration.
All that’s well and good, but it’s a little bit like religion — a long, long journey that you hope will eventually land you in Heaven, Nirvana or at least on God’s list of Do Rights. But what about 2014?
One doable goal
Well, I think that those cable TV psychologist-pundits we’ve been listening to for the past few days — the ones who gas on about how to keep your New Year’s resolutions — have some advice that might work for our region as well for us slackers. That is, choose one doable goal and stick to it.
Fine. So what should be at the top of the agenda right now? What should we try to get done this year, come hell or come high water?
My answer: Mass transit.
Obviously, the Twin Cities metro cannot build all the train and bus lines now only in planning stages in the next year. But we can get the routes set; we can allocate our share of the funding necessary to win federal money to construct what we need and figure out how to pay for operating losses — because, like it or not, any form of transit, including roads and sidewalks, involves ongoing costs to the public treasury for maintenance and operation.
We’ve had forward-looking plans on the books for years but have moved ahead at the speed of a tortoise. Yes, we have built the Hiawatha line, and 2014 will mark the inauguration of the central corridor line. But our two cities, actually three counting Bloomington, need more transportation spokes to and from the suburban hinterlands that will take residents to work, to school, to entertainment venues and health-care facilities both in the cities and in more densely populated hubs on their fringes.
What should be on the list? The Southwest line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and the Bottineau line out to Brooklyn Park are already underway — kind of. Not everybody is happy about the routes, but that we need both LRTs to serve the growing western suburbs is beyond debate.
I would also add what’s been called the Gateway line, which would travel east from Union Depot in downtown St. Paul to Lakeland. In fact, I would run it all the way to Hudson, Wis. While it’s true that Badger state workers might spend Minnesota-earned money at home, they’ll also scatter some dollars here, and Wisconsin students will commute to the University of Minnesota and other local colleges, fattening their revenues.
Another line that’s not even on the drawing boards should probably head north to Fridley from some point in one of the two major cities, maybe a station on the central corridor line.
We should extend the North Star commuter train line all the way to St. Cloud. No disrespect to Big Lake, where the train stops now, but seriously, its population is a mere 11,000 while St. Cloud is six times its size and a much more likely source of passengers.
We need another line, high-speed, from the Union Depot in St. Paul to Chicago, with a crucial stop in Rochester, where the state is investing billions to help create a destination medical center.
Bus rapid transit
Where we can’t immediately build light rail, we should establish what’s fashionably called BRT or bus rapid transit. When I lived in New York, I knew this form of transportation as the express bus. Operated mostly by private companies, such Greyhound-style buses would make multiple stops in far-flung parts of the outer boroughs and then, past a certain point, zap passengers nonstop into Manhattan. The Metropolitan Council is working on BRT, but it seems very expensive. Maybe it would make sense to establish routes and allow private carriers to bid on them.
The same goes for streetcars. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis are considering the reintroduction of trolleys, trams, streetcars or whatever you want to call them. Since they would stop every five blocks or so, they would probably do more to stimulate business and residential development than the LRT. But, of course, it may take years to undertake the planning and organize the funding. So in the interim, perhaps the Met Council could help the cities establish circulator routes that could be bid out to privately operated jitney companies.
Folks who say we don’t need light rail or express buses because people here have cars are missing some dramatic changes. Younger people, the so-called Millennials, now in their 20s, are much less interested than the generations that preceded them in buying cars. (Why would they want to take on a car loan when they’re laboring under crushing student debt in a less than peppy job market?) Without mass transit of some kind, families with two breadwinners would be forced to own two cars, an unaffordable option for many.
Tastes have changed as well. In survey after survey, Millennials say they would prefer to live in an urban environment where they could walk to retail outlets and catch a quick train to the center city or some other hub. According to Doug Baker, CEO of Ecolab, and David Wilson, managing director at Accenture, and other Twin Cities businesspeople I’ve talked to over the past couple of years, corporations already here and those contemplating a move to the area need and want those young people as employees. And if those Millennials can find the convenience of mass transit in, say, Denver, Portland or Washington, D.C., those businesses will wind up there, not here. And, obviously, we need them here.
I won’t test your patience by telling you that trains and buses will produce less noxious pollution and save fuel, easing strains on the environment; no doubt, you’ve heard all that before. So here’s something else to think about: Mass transit may be the only way to save our suburbs.
Why? For many people, commuting by car has become unpalatable. Roads are congested, and we’ve built just about all the highways we can to ease the crowding. Unless commuters can find an easier way to get to and from work, many will abandon suburban living. House prices will drop, and the billions that taxpayers have invested in water, sewer and other public facilities will have been wasted.
I haven’t added up the cost of all these projects, and no doubt the total would come to multiple billions. The longer we wait the more expensive any and all of these projects will become.