In defense of the Met Council’s plan for future development

MnDOT
The council calls for building out the transit system to reduce congestion and help people commute to the metro's 42 designated job centers.

Our regional government, the Metropolitan Council, adopted Wednesday the final draft of its Thrive MSP 2040 plan. As you no doubt know, this document — or set of documents, issued every decade at the behest of the Legislature — aims to guide development in the seven-county metro for transportation, water resources, land use, parks and, this time around, housing. And, of course, it’s being picked apart by all and sundry.

But before I get to that, I have an important breaking urban-news bulletin. To wit: the Lake Harriet elf tree is again open for business. It is, in case you haven’t noticed, a rather slender ash tree (located on the walking path around Harriet, just past South Oliver) with a tiny wood and metal door at its base. Children and adults leave notes and wishes for the elf to answer — and, miracle of miracles, he does, enclosing typed messages in waterproof baggies.

In my recent strolls around the lake, however, I noticed that while the tree’s garden was in bloom, the elf’s door was locked, and some crestfallen children told me that the elf had retired to his Castle in the East and wasn’t returning. I had some wishes of my own to be addressed (example: could he make my columns write themselves?); so I made inquiries, and it turns out that the elf has returned to his tree. In an email, he announced, “my retirement is grossly over exaggerated. i just moved back in on saturday and have already answered close to 100 letters.” I hope that in case Mr. Elf ever contemplates a permanent move to his Castle in the East, he has a succession plan. For such a community asset — our very own elf! — to disappear would be heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, back to Thrive 2040. The plan lays out a future that is not particularly revolutionary. Given the prospect of global warming and depletion of resources, it advocates growth in already urbanized areas. It proclaims that we have enough highways and emphasizes maintaining what we’ve got instead of building more. The council also calls for building out the transit system to reduce congestion and help people commute to the metro’s 42 designated job centers. (You can see a map of them on page 50 of the Thrive plan.)

And, it wants dense development around stations and along transit corridors to make travel more efficient. The plan makes a stab at, or says it will make a stab at, reducing so-called RCAPs or Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty by placing affordable housing in higher-income areas. In water management, it calls for more cooperation among jurisdictions to somehow stop draining aquifers. A lot of the plan, of course, is pretty vague, endorsing mother-love and apple-pie goals like prosperity, equity and livability.

I don’t love every word. (I did skim the whole thing.) If anything, it seems overly cautious — though the Met Council will be spelling out more specifics in the coming months — and maybe bolder measures. (Surely, we need more than “partnerships” in the realm of water usage when White Bear Lake seems headed for puddle-dom.) But having a plan for the future of water, parks and so on is way better than not having one. If you like cities with no planning whatsoever, then you should move to Houston. It doesn’t even have zoning regulations; so you can build a $2 million mansion, or a nice little $200,000 house, only to have a strip club open up next door.

Anyhow, here are some of the major complaints about Thrive 2040 and my rejoinders:

Who made these Met Council folks bosses of us?

The governor — he appoints them. One comes from each of 16 districts, and one member serves at large. True, they are not elected officials, but taking regional planning issues out of the hands of politicians was one of the motivating ideas behind the enabling legislation. After all, if Betsy Hodges, the Minneapolis mayor, and Jeff Jacobs, the mayor of St. Louis Park, were free to decide on the alignment of the Southwest LRT, the two tracks would probably meet somewhere in Indiana.

We don’t need the Met Council.

Maybe not, but if it didn’t exist, state agencies (also full of unelected bureaucrats) would be making regional decisions about transit, water and so on. And their portfolio would not include looking out for the seven-county metro.

The Met Council is crazy to say we don’t need more highways. Look at the congestion during rush hour!

Minnesota needs $20 billion merely to repair the roads that are already built. And, since there seems to be no appetite either in St. Paul or Washington, D.C., for raising the gas tax, the major financing source for roads, we’ll be looking at more potholes and more crumbling bridges, not smooth new freeways.

In any case, study after study has shown that building more highways in and around cities only increases congestion. Historically, adding more roads invites more drivers. According to Anthony Downs, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied the effect, building enough road capacity to accommodate rush hour traffic into the furthest suburb would require us “to turn much of every metropolitan region into a giant concrete slab, and the resulting huge roads would be grossly underutilized in noncommuting hours.”  

And this stupid mass transit system — who’s going to use it?

The Met Council has ambitious plans to build out a system of light rail and express bus lines. Unfortunately, Downs also makes the point that light rail is unlikely to ease congestion by much. “Even if the nation’s existing transit capacity were increased fourfold and fully utilized, morning peak-hour transit travel would rise only to 11 percent of all morning trips. That would reduce private vehicle trips by only 8.8 percent — hardly enough to end congestion,” he’s written.

That would be true if the majority of the population continues to live in single-family houses in far-flung suburbs, but public opinion surveys have shown an increased bent toward renting and toward living in cities. If denser living becomes the norm, more people will use mass transit. Even so, don’t expect congestion to ease. The Met Council is projecting a population increase of 550,000. More people equals more crowded roads, transit lines and everything else.

The plan is too city-oriented. This complaint comes from suburban mayors. Minneapolis and St. Paul, of course, claim they are the ones being short-changed.

They are both right and both wrong. Because the two cities are the end-points of the new train lines, development is naturally gravitating there. Banks and housing developers are calculating — maybe correctly, maybe not; they’re not infallible — that more people will want to live close to the new transit lines. But development is also occurring near transit stops in the suburbs. For their part, the two cities are distressed that Thrive still anticipates more growth on the suburban edge than in the cities.

The plan will force everybody to live in high-density apartment stacks, which is un-American.

Given the Met Council’s expectations of growth on the metro’s margins, the single-family house probably won’t disappear — at least not by 2040. But demographic changes suggest that such housing might not suit growing swaths of the population. An increasing number of households are made up of single people, some divorced, some never married, some widowed; few of them would seem eager to clean and maintain a three-bedroom ranch, miles from the nearest grocery store or movie theater. For them, developers have been experimenting with micro-apartments — 300-square-foot-units that are almost like dorm rooms. Geared to people who are short on cash but want to live in pricey areas, they offer shared amenities, like kitchens, cafeterias and so on.

Every time a town wants to extend a sewer line, it will have to meet sustainability criteria. Ridiculous!

Extending sewer lines to ever-more sparsely inhabited areas of the metro can be wasteful. Not only does such development unnecessarily cost taxpayers a ton of money — after all, there’s plenty of vacant land that already can hook up to available sewer lines — but sucking all the water out of aquifers endangers our water supply. Maintaining the generous water resources that nature granted our region gives us a competitive advantage over water-deprived areas like California in luring new residents and businesses. If we overuse it, we’ll lose it.

And what about this equity thing? It sounds like the council wants to make sure that there’s a racial and income mix in every municipality. They are trying to make people live with people they don’t want to be with.

I won’t lay out the evidence of racial and ethnic inequality in the Twin Cities. The gap is the widest among all large metros in the nation. Anyway, you can find the statistics on page 19 of Thrive. Doing something to close the gap would obviously boost the region’s economic power, productivity and prosperity.

Katherine Kersten, senior fellow of the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative Minnesota think tank, writes in the Wall Street Journal that the Council says that any action by the Met Council to integrate is unnecessary because, “minority residents have been streaming into the suburbs for the past 15 years.” But according to Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for Metropolitan Opportunity, 29 percent of Twin Cities suburbanites live in diverse communities, as compared to 44 percent in other large metros.

The council doesn’t plan to issue its housing plan until later; so we don’t know what’s in store. I would like to see the council return to its pre-1985 policy of allocating a fair share of affordable housing to every municipality. But it instead seems to be pledging to pour investment into already poor areas, which would suggest that RCAPs will continue to exist. The council is also hoping to prod developers to put up affordable housing on or near transit corridors, on the theory that poor people will then be able to get to the jobs and educational institutions that lie along them. Given the rising cost of land near train and express bus lines, however, that may not be economically feasible. Still, I would argue that the fact that the Met Council is concerned about boosting opportunity can’t be a bad thing.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/30/2014 - 10:33 am.

    I second that motion

    “…I would like to see the council return to its pre-1985 policy of allocating a fair share of affordable housing to every municipality.” I couldn’t agree more. If every neighborhood incorporated mixed-use zoning and mixed-income housing, much (not all, but a substantial amount) of the traffic congestion would disappear as people found jobs and services nearby instead of always being at the other end of the metro, and while the wealthy are a curse we’ll always have with us, and will thus always be able to self-segregate, “old-fashioned America” was made up of communities in which people from all walks of life lived together in reasonable harmony.

    “…They are trying to make people live with people they don’t want to be with.” That sentiment, no doubt true and accurate for many, given the yawning gaps in income, home ownership, and other indicators in the metro area, is simply the expression of prejudice, suitable for a toddler, perhaps, but counterproductive (to be polite) among adults. Economic bigotry is just as ugly and pernicious as is racial and ethnic bigotry, and there’s apparently plenty of all three types in the metro area. It’s time for some people – and especially if those people are on city councils, the Met Council, various park boards, state legislatures, etc. – to grow up.

    Up to a point, the more local the planning, the more Byzantine and ineffectual the result. Centralized planning can also be more than a little bit out of touch with what’s happening “on the ground,” but the name of most local entities can most accurately be spelled “parochial.” Regional planning, while hardly perfect in itself, at least goes a long way toward keeping local prejudices from serving as obstacles to changes that might benefit everyone in the region. Humans are notoriously ineffective at predicting the future if the time span in question is more than a very few years, so a plan for 2040 may look quaint and/or bizarre by the time we actually see 2040, but that’s no reason not to make an attempt to prepare for what we think might happen.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/30/2014 - 10:52 am.

    Nice

    Just to reiterate: You don’t build transit to relieve traffic congestion, you build transit to move people. Its really important to keep that in mind otherwise you can end up concluding that a transit system that moves a gazillion people but fails to relieve traffic congestion is some kind of fail… it’s not.

    In theory, and in fact, if you look at urban areas around the world where transit option are well developed and integrated into the environment, you get less traffic congestion. For instance you don’t hear a lot about rush hour traffic jams in Amsterdam. However the US is decades behind on this front and will take probably take a generation or two to produce that result.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/30/2014 - 12:46 pm.

    Perhaps Amsterdam just looked at its neigbhors

    This is a Forbes article on the most congested cities.

    http://www.forbes.com/pictures/ehmk45kigm/1-brussels-belgium-2/

    I do agree that transit may not relieve congestion because many of the cities on this list have a great transit system.

    And this is a fun site for more traffic comparisons around the world

    http://www.tomtom.com/en_us/trafficindex/

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/30/2014 - 01:15 pm.

    Amsterdam does indeed have its traffic issues. A couple of years ago my girlfriend flew into Amsterdam, picked up a rental, and drove to southern Holland to visit me. What should have been a two hour trip turned into a five hour ordeal, primarily because of road construction along the A2 highway.

    Sound similar to any states you know?

    The important thing to keep in mind though is how much worse the congestion would be if they (and Minnesota) didn’t have mass transit. Congestion isn’t bad because of mass transit, but rather in spite of it.

  5. Submitted by Robert Jacobs on 05/30/2014 - 01:25 pm.

    Where’s innovation?

    Why is the only answer throwing more money at the status quo? In Europe, Asia and the Middle East, personal rapid transit systems are being demonstrated in commercial applications. There’s even a demonstration system in Mexico.

    The attitude of our policy makers is we’ll only look at new stuff after all the old stuff has been implemented. That’s kind of like arguing that only after every street corner gets new gas lamps installed, then we’ll look at those electric street lights that that troublemaker Edison has been promoting.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/30/2014 - 03:55 pm.

      Personal Transit

      The problem with this mode of transportation is it’s still in the development stage. Can you imagine the outcry we would get if something like this were attempted and it didn’t turn out absolutely perfect and under budget? People would lynch our elected officials as they screamed about the boondoggle, waste of money, taxes, and the bad burger they had for lunch last week.

      I’m all for innovation–I pressed my city council member last week about community solar gardens–but we need to go for items that have a bit of a longer track record before rolling them out wholesale.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/30/2014 - 06:44 pm.

      The only people who like PRT are the ones who haven’t

      thought it through and the ones who don’t like the idea of riding with their “inferiors.” The existing systems are all very simple, with only one or two lines, sort of like the aerial tramway at the State Fair (that’s PRT on a small scale).

      When you begin modeling a PRT system that serves an entire metropolitan area, you run into severe bottle necks, trouble allocating the right number of pods to the right lines, morning, mid day, and evening; and yes, traffic jams at popular stations and/or on-ramps and off-ramps. When I ask PRT advocates to show me a model of a PRT system that would work for an entire metro area, they just say that it would work.

      The technology has existed for over 50 years. Not one city in the entire world has made it their primary mode of public transit. A few have limited short lines, but not one has succeeded in building a whole network.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/30/2014 - 02:38 pm.

    Amsterdam rocks

    I stand by my statement. I note that Amsterdam does not appear on Jody’s top ten and it’s 47 on the TomTom ranking, very respectable. As for Todd’s Girlfriend, obviously she was driving away from Amsterdam (From Schiphol to points south) not within it, so your point misses the mark. And who rents a car in the Netherlands anyways? 🙂

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/30/2014 - 03:49 pm.

      Amsterdam

      I wasn’t disagreeing with your observation, just pointing out that it’s not all unicorns and rainbows in the Netherlands. We rented a car there as we were popping hither and yon on a day-by-day basis. Where we could, we took the train, such as Brussels and Luxembourg City. But for other trips the car made more sense, such as Tongeran and Stavelot. When we got to Amsterdam we ditched the car entirely and walked or took the tram everywhere.

      That’s the same kind of system we need to create here in Minnesota. You pick and choose the system that works best for your needs at any given moment. For my commute downtown bikes make the most sense as driving the car is not only expensive (roughly $10/day with parking), but it also takes 30 – 45 minutes to get across town and then home on 394. Biking takes 30 minutes and I get my daily exercise built in. For heading down to the airport though I’ll likely take the train once the SWLRT is in place as that’s a heck of a lot cheaper than driving and paying for parking.

  7. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 05/30/2014 - 02:47 pm.

    Work moves

    Living reasonably close to work is an excellent idea, but not one that’ll solve all congestion problems.

    What if work moves away? Companies move their operations, often from one end of the metro area to another. People change jobs. I cannot count how many people I’ve met over the decades who commute what to me are enormous distances because:
    — They couldn’t afford a house near their jobs
    — Their employers transferred them to a different site
    — Their employers moved to a new location
    — They changed jobs for advancement or they were laid off (or their companies closed) and they had to find new jobs elsewhere, which could have them living, say, in Plymouth and working in Maplewood.

    Increasing density and, at the same time, improving mass transit are laudable goals. They will help, but they won’t work for lots of folks, even if they wish they would. (I’d have loved to take the bus to work. But it consumed 35 to 65 minutes including a transfer. I could drive it in 12 minutes.)

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/30/2014 - 03:56 pm.

      Commuting

      Mass transit certainly isn’t for everyone. If you can live close to work and take the bus or train, then more power to you. If you can’t then make the best of it, then hunker down and enjoy the ride.

      The point is to encourage people towards shorter commutes and greater density, not to say “everyone MUST do it.” Just as we’ve encouraged everyone for the past 60 years to drive everywhere via our infrastructure choices, now we’re changing tactics to nudge people in a different direction for the next 60 years.

      We’ll see how it goes.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/30/2014 - 06:53 pm.

      There are ways around this problem that will not work for

      everyone but may work for some people.

      One is that living close to work can remove the need for a second or even first car. That’s a $6000-9000 saving right there and may allow you to afford more expensive housing. If you actually ride the bus, you will see that people do grocery shop and take children on the bus and that children age 10 or more are capable of taking the bus to familiar destinations.

      Another possibility, if your company is agreeable, is to give employees the option of moving to the branch closest to their home. I found out about this when I went to my neighborhood bank in Portland and found several new faces present and several old faces missing.

      Another is reconsidering the concept of how much housing you “need.” Many of us grew up in houses that were smaller than the typical new single-family home today, and we thrived.

      Still another is reconsidering the concept of “speed is good.” Yes, it takes longer to get somewhere by public transit, but you can’t read or write or knit or nap (at least you shouldn’t) while you’re driving. Transit can be an “in-between place,” neither home nor work, where you can just relax without the alertness required for driving. (Why do you think that long-distance driving is tiring when all you do all day is sit?)

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/30/2014 - 04:05 pm.

    Road Costs

    Just a slight clarification on Marlys’ article. She mentions “Minnesota needs $20 billion merely to repair the roads that are already built.” The time frame we’re looking at here is $20 billion over twenty years or roughly one billion a year. Also that’s one billion a year more than what we’re already spending to repair roads, not a billion total.

    If I remember correctly (and I probably don’t), we’re spending about a billion a year to repair roads and this would double it to cover all the bases. These figures are also just repairs to existing roads and don’t include money to expand the road network.

    Basically road funds are short, shorter, shortest, and getting shorter.

Leave a Reply