As Met Council changes transit priorities, suburbs say: not so fast

Photo by Lars Negstad
In a packed room in West St. Paul, the Twin Cities’ five suburban counties held a dramatic meeting to announce concerns about the region’s transportation planning.

Earlier this week in a packed room in West St. Paul, the Twin Cities’ five suburban counties held a dramatic meeting to announce concerns about the region’s transportation planning. At the center of the discussion was a list of “common and unique concerns” shared by the suburban counties (Anoka, Dakota, Scott, Washington, and Carver). To most people, these concerns will seem obscure: They include calls for federal oversight of “performance reviews and measures,” fewer “land use density minimums,” “strategic capacity enhancements” for highways, and a focus on the “principal arterial needs of the region.” But decoded from engineering language, the suburban counties are asking for more road funding and a greater degree of geographic equity in transportation investments.

The meeting was a peek into the opaque world of conflict between outer- and inner-ring suburbs, core cities and exurbs. Usually this inter-county struggle remains behind closed doors, but this week's rare public display comes at a time when a lot has been shifting in the world of transportation policy. For example, equity is a key political buzzword these days, particularly since the Twin Cites has become infamous for having the widest racial gaps in the nation. But when it comes to transportation, there remains a big difference between geographic, economic and racial equity.

Complex regional governance

In order to understand the suburban counties' complaints, one must dive into the weeds of the Twin Cities’ unique regional governance system. In our area, the Metropolitan Council has shaped land use planning, sewer investments and our transit and transportation system since 1967. (Most U.S. metros are fractured and don’t have an independent metrowide governmental agency.)

However, the Met Council is appointed rather than elected, and so federal rules require an additional body — the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) — to weigh in. The TAB has 33 members that include elected officials from all seven counties and some cities, as well as citizen and state agency members. The TAB makes decisions on Federal funding and sends recommendations to the Met Council, which retains the final say over regional planning. (See, I told you it was complicated!)

This week’s meeting revolved around two recent activities that are going on with these agencies. The first was a new funding formula recently adopted by the TAB, while the second is the ongoing planning efforts at the Met Council to set the transportation planning priorities for the region — the so-called 2040 Transportation Policy Plan. While these things are ostensibly separate, as the suburban counties see it, each case proposes big planning changes that will make it more difficult for outlying areas to receive road and transit money.

Starting to affect pockets of poverty

Russ Stark is a City Council member who represents St. Paul on the TAB, and has spent years lobbying for greater attention to economic inequality in transportation spending.

“This new funding formula is one of the ways that the Met Council and the TAB believe we can start to help concentrated areas of poverty,” Stark told me. “We’re making sure we’re connecting them to infrastructure and serving them with transit.”

Thanks to Stark and others on the TAB, the committee recently adopted a new equity-inclusive funding formula on a close vote. For the first time, transportation projects will be specifically graded on whether they serve areas of poverty, and will include a more careful accounting of the region’s affordable housing. Stark is hopeful that the new formula will make a difference “around the margins” toward reducing poverty at both the regional and neighborhood level.

“If you look at the last 20 years, on the transit side we’ve been funding a lot of projects in the suburbs,” Stark explained to me last week. “It’s been tilted towards suburban park and ride projects and suburban express bus routes. And generally speaking, where roadways have been expanded, most of those projects have been in the outlying suburbs as well. To me this change is one way of rebalancing what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years.”

Courtesy of Metro Transit
Transit funding has focused on park and ride projects and suburban express routes.

A shifting transportation landscape

One reason that the TAB decision might seem problematic for the five suburban counties is that the transportation landscape has been changing a lot in recent years. Growth in driving has tapered off, while a combination of a weak housing market, the increased popularity of transit, and a reduction in federal funding has made it increasingly difficult to expand development on the edges of the metro area. Thanks to these trends, since 2010, more economic and job growth has been centered in the region’s core counties.

Jobs and job growth by county, Twin Cities metro region
CountyShare of region2010-13 growthShare of
region's growth,
2010-13
Anoka County7%9%11%
Carver County2%9%4%
Dakota County11%5%10%
Hennepin County53%6%62%
Ramsey County20%1%5%
Scott County3%4%2%
Washington County5%6%5%
Source: U.S. Census/American Community Survey
According to recently released American Community Survey (ACS) data, Ramsey and Hennepin counties have accounted for 67 percent of the region’s job growth and 58 percent of population growth, marking a shift away from growth in the five suburban counties.

Adam Duininck is a member of the Met Council, and serves as its representative on the TAB. He argues that these recent changes to the TAB formula merely serve to correct long-standing imbalances in regional transportation funding.

“Some [funding formulas] favor certain parts of the region and others do not,” Duininck told me.

“That’s why they are frustrated with equity scoring — when one [funding criteria] isn’t in favor of what you’re advocating for. They probably feel like there’s been a big increase in transit money because of how large grants are, for example the Green Line. But when you look at the big picture, our road system is not decades behind similar systems in other metro areas. We have a lot of lane miles per capita. But our transit system is five to 20 years behind other metro regions.”

Geography equity vs. economic equity

Source: Met Council
Areas in purple are Areas of Concentrated Poverty (40% or more
living in poverty). Shaded areas are Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty
(40% or more living in poverty and 50% or more people of color).

Including poverty within transportation decisions poses problems for suburban counties in particular because poverty is not evenly distributed throughout the metro area, particularly what are called “racially concentrated areas of poverty.” Most of the Twin Cities’ poverty is concentrated in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as a few (mostly) inner-ring suburbs. This means that paying attention to the region’s economic equity cannot treat all counties and cities as equals.

Lars Negstad works on transportation policy for ISAIAH, an inter-faith organization dedicated to decreasing racial and economic inequity in the Twin Cities region. He believes that equity-based changes to transportation investment are long overdue.

“It’s problematic that this technical advisory committee carries a lot of weight over some big decisions,” Negstad told me. “The decision at the TAB illustrates exactly the problem in regional governance where an advisory group of engineers can weigh in and say ‘No, we shouldn’t make these racial equity points.’”

Negstad points to the long history of redlining, racial profiling and freeway construction that exacerbated social inequality in the region for decades.

“On the whole, we’re subsidizing white flight and urban sprawl,” Negstad said. “We’re building the city to get commuters from suburban homes to downtown jobs, and then continuing to build on that pace at the expense of the crumbling infrastructure in the core cities and inner-ring suburbs. We need to plan for much greater investment in bus service so that people have good access to bus service, not overcrowded buses.”

Transportation and the equity gap

In last year's mayoral campaign, new Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges made reducing racial and economic inequality into her No. 1 priority. But because the Twin Cities has so many separate cities and counties, Minneapolis can hardly solve the regional equity gap on its own. Perhaps the kinds of changes now taking place at the regional policy level can start to help.

Meanwhile, Lars Negstad dismisses Monday’s five-county meeting as “a lot of theatrics.”

“One of the lessons I took away from [Monday’s] meeting is that the five counties together represent about one-third of the metro population, but they punch above their weight,” Negstad told me. “But it’s important for central cities and inner-ring suburbs to come together, and for people who believe that everybody deserves a chance to get where they need to go to speak up, organize, and have a louder voice in the debate.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by kevin terrell on 10/03/2014 - 12:45 pm.

    Ramsey county?

    Just trying to figure out why Ramsey county is highlighted in your chart as a key supplier of job growth. It would seem to be punching far below its weight, to the use the term in the article, when it comes to its share of growth since 2010.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 10/05/2014 - 08:20 am.

      Good point

      I too have higher expectations for Ramsey County, and would like to see more growth concentrated there in the core and along walkable transit-accessible neighborhoods. There’s a lot to be done to encourage walkablity and greater transit in Saint Paul, for example.

      But the difference b/w Ramsey and Hennepin Counties is pretty massive. Hennepin accounts for fully half of the regional population.

  2. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 10/04/2014 - 11:28 am.

    Self-driving cars will fix much of the problem.

    With a single metro-wide system, problem solved. Most people would not own a car for city driving, they would all use the public fleet and pay per ride/trip. Way cheaper than owning a car or two. More interesting to see this option NOT being considered.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/05/2014 - 07:58 pm.

      Self-Driving Cars

      While I’m very interested in self-driving cars, primarily because it takes the weakest link out of the driving system: humans. But realistically we’re looking at a minimum of twenty years before they’re widely adopted, assuming they get implemented tomorrow. That’s not like though, primarily because they need to work out the legal ramifications of the cars. If it gets into an accident, who is responsible?

      Until self-driving cars get to be the rule on the road instead of the exception, we have to deal with the situation as it is. That means roads, trains, buses, bikes, and trails. My personal take on the self-driving cars is that they’ll help reduce congestion, but not completely eliminate it, primarily because they’ll be part of the driving mix and not the only vehicle on the road.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/06/2014 - 09:20 am.

    Failure of regional metropolitan planning

    I completely agree with Mr. Negstad’s position in this article about subsidizing white flihght and urban sprwawl. But is it any surprise that suburban metropolitan towns which were planned and built on the premise of “transportation=roads and highways” would be clamoring for more of the same fix that got there in the first place?

    The Met Council was created as I understand to plan development in the seven county area and among other things balance the demand for transportation (meaning highway and road) funding. Cities like Woodbury and Maple Grove were mostly cornfields and pastures at that time. That was during the energy crisis in the 1970’s when the idea was that as an energy (oil) importing country, we needed to curb consumption of oil. And that was by planning more energy efficient communities. These goals are in the laws for the Met Council from that time.

    Since then the Met Council has allowed communities like this to grow to populations of 80,000 on the assumption that most of the “transportation” would be by automobiles. Not buses or trains-automobiles. Meanwhile, the other profit end of the Met Council, the sewer services- was busy designing and building sewer interceptors and treatment facilities and widen this development, none of which would be served by an adequate public transit system. Therein lies the complete failure of regional planning to accomplish things like energy conservation and limit urban sprawl and wasteful consumption of valuable agricultural land for housing.

    We’re now seeing another round of this “planning” in Lake Elmo where a community that mostly did not even want a central sewer is being forced to accept this and allow urban sprawl development to pay for it.

    The Met Council makes noises from time to time about “sustainable development” but has never indicated to me that its members have any clue what that means. What does it say about a system that continues to operate as it has since 1978 as if nothing ever happened in 2008? It’s a complete failure.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/06/2014 - 11:51 am.

      Bridges

      To add to the narrative, we also have the Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin, which just encourages people to move even farther out and drive more.On the political side we can blame people on both sides of the isle. But regardless of what the politicians wanted, the Met Council should have come down with a firm no on this one.

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