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Getting to the Capitol: What if more lawmakers and staffers were to take transit?

How much money could be saved through more efficient transportation at the state government?

The Green Line light-rail train shown on a trial run passed the Minnesota Capitol in May 2013.
Courtesy of Central Corridor LRT

One of the more controversial subjects around the state Capitol this year is the new Senate Office Building, which is slowly being built across the street. When it was debated and funded last year, the $77 million price tag for the building proved to be a partisan sticking point. 

One thing that almost nobody debated, however, was the necessity for a new parking ramp. According to one estimate, over a third of the building’s cost was tied up in its new six-story, 730-space parking ramp, intended to “house all members of the Senate, staff, and disabled visitors.” The high price tag prompts the question: How much money could be saved through more efficient transportation at the state government?

The corner of Rice St. and University Ave., circa 1901.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The corner of Rice St. and University Ave., circa 1901.

The history of the Capitol area

When the Minnesota Capitol was built in 1904 the area looked nothing like it does today. As Andy Sturdevant beautifully described in a recent Stroll column, the former “central park” neighborhood, an aging assemblage of Victorian mansions, has been replaced by the ever-growing Capitol complex. (Most notably, the former “central park” itself is now memorialized in the middle of the parking lot behind the Centennial office building.)

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A black and bronze plaque that reads, in a distinguished serif hand, “CENTRAL PARK,” on a whitewashed concrete pillar on the second level of the parking garage to the southeast of the Capitol.

For St. Paul, connecting the Capitol area to the rest of the city has long been a challenge. The current iteration of the Capitol mall, with its “trivium” view sheds of downtown and the cathedral, is rightly a beautiful example of beaux-arts style planning. But for all its majesty, outside of occasional springtime protests the Capitol area remains a deserted mix of grass, memorials, quiet bureaucratic buildings and half-empty parking lots, a far cry from the bustling mix of shops and streetcars that sat here a century ago.

The question of how government buildings function as part of the larger city of St. Paul reveals a challenging logistics problem for state planners.               

The special problems of state Capitols

When it comes to transportation, planning for state Capitols is more difficult than managing a typical office building. For one thing, the bipolar nature of the political calendar, with intense annual sessions between January and May, means that the Capitol must be designed for peak times. According to Curtis Yoakum, the assistant commissioner of communications and planning for the Department of Administration, since 1967, planning around the state Capitol has been the responsibility of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which controls zoning and land use around the Capitol.

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Additionally, the transportation needs of legislators make the Capitol a challenging transportation situation. Inherently, it has to be accessible to people from all corners of the vast state of Minnesota. While many outstate politicians rent nearby places to live during the session, many others drive long distances to get to the Capitol during the busy political season. That helps to explain the 6,600 parking spots around the complex of public buildings.

(At the extreme end, District 1A, in the northwest corner of the state, lies 350 miles from the Capitol. Some legislators end up flying together back and forth to their districts in small planes.)

But this year, the new Green Line light rail stop next to the Capitol offers the potential to shift political commuting away from the automobile. And figuring out exactly how to make transit work with legislators is at the political forefront this week, as a coalition of pro-transit groups has issued a challenge to state politicians to take transit to the Capitol.

Dave van Hattum is a longtime lobbyist for Transit for Livable Communities, one of the leading sustainable transportation advocacy groups at the capitol. He thinks the campaign (#howwerollMN) is helping make the case for transit funding.

“One of the main ideas was just to have legislators try transit,” van Hattum told me this week. “In many cases, that meant taking an express bus with a transfer. You have more exposure to walking, and learn some details what riding transit involves, like finding a route. A lot of the routes are good at peak hours, but not so good into the evening. Legislators start the day at peak times, but don’t end the day at a set time. We’re already seeing a lot of social media of people learning from experience.”

Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7A in the Minnesota House, and takes the Green Line to and from the Capitol every day from her temporary home in downtown St. Paul.

“It comes every 12 minutes to the Capitol, and for me it’s very convenient,” Schultz explained to me this week. “I don’t even look at the schedule! I usually wait only two or three minutes. Everybody should try it. One of the fears is ‘how does it work?’ Light rail is kind of new in Minnesota. People don’t understand, so I’ve been explaining to other legislators how to get a Go-To card.”

(Just like many Twin cities companies, the state subsidizes transit passes for employees working at state Capitol complex.) 

Light rail lobbying

This week’s experiment might suggest one future for planning at the Capitol complex, one where politicians, staff, and lobbyists share small talk and ideas while bumping elbows with the hoi polloi on their way through the heart of St. Paul.

Ben Schewigert works as assistant county attorney for Hennepin County, while serving as legislative liaison during the state session. He says that taking the Green Line to the Capitol has “changed his life.”

“It gives me so much more flexibility,” Schweigert explained. Thanks to the train, he’s able to work different hours and not rely on his wife for carpool rides back to Minneapolis.

“One way that it is fantastic is that I can get a lot of work done on the train, which I can’t do if I’m driving a car. Comparing my experience now to other sessions I’ve worked at the Capitol, I feel like I’m spending more time with family and getting more done,” Schweigert told me.

The dream of bipartisanship flowering on the Green Line isn’t likely to come true anytime soon, as funding transportation has become one of the largest fights in this year’s legislative session. Judging by the recent rhetoric, Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan a metro-area transit and statewide roads bill faces tough odds this year.

But for the legislators and Capitol staff riding transit to their committee meetings this week, maybe some will notice how difficult it can be to get around the Twin Cities using buses and trains. At the very least, encouraging politicians to actually use the system they fund might bring a new sense of reality to the ongoing transit debate. After all, I’d like to think that both parties could agree that saving money on expensive government parking ramps would be a good idea.