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Minneapolis should keep Public Works in the spotlight

A look at the Robin Hutcheson era as she moves on to a job in the Biden administration.

Minneapolis' first planter-protected bike lane on 3rd Avenue South.
Minneapolis' first planter-protected bike lane on 3rd Avenue South.
City of Minneapolis

Rock star status is not normally accorded to the head of a Public Works department. But in 2016, when then Mayor Betsy Hodges announced Robin Hutcheson as director of the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, it triggered borderline euphoria in transportation advocacy circles. For street design nerds, it was as if Taylor Swift had announced a First Avenue residency, only for crosswalks and bollards and Level of Service metrics.

Robin Hutcheson
Robin Hutcheson
Historically, Public Works bureaucrats have been far more comfortable dealing with orange cones than with the public. In most cities, the job goes to engineers who see their role as going unnoticed for as long as possible. But things have been changing over the last decade, where Public Works departments in cities like New York and Seattle have become key political entities.

That was the goal, anyway, for Hutcheson, who was heavily recruited to come to Minneapolis from Salt Lake City.

“Advocates wrote letters to the mayor laying out different reasons why this appointment would shape the future of the city for years to come,” explained Ashwat Narayanan, the executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, the city’s leading transportation advocacy group. “Individual council members reached out to contacts across the country, reaching out to Robin to invite her to apply for the job.”

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The courtship was a full-court press, with council members and advocates even working with Hodges to craft position requirements. For the first time, being an engineer was removed from the job description, allowing a whole new group of people to apply.

Current Council President Lisa Bender was one of those who helped bring Hutcheson to Minneapolis. For much of her eight years on the City Council, Bender has led on transportation issues, stemming from her roots in bicycle advocacy. As much as one else, Bender has closely watched the progress unfold at Public Works.

“I appreciated Mayor Hodges’ leadership, how she explicitly was looking for someone who was committed to shepherding change,” Bender told me. “Everything from stormwater management and sustainability and climate change to race equity.”

Earlier this year, Hutcheson announced she was stepping down from the post, to take a new job in the U.S. Department of Transportation, part of a wave of recruits headed to D.C. to work with the Biden administration. The Minneapolis job is currently being filled on an interim basis by Deputy Director Brette Hjelle.

An incredibly important role

Looking back, how successful was the Hutcheson era? Was the hype, such as it was, worth it?

On the one hand, leadership of Public Works is an incredibly important role, overseeing everything from garbage to groundwater, potholes to parade permits, and from sewers to snowplows. The Public Works Department has a budget that exceeds $380 million. Other than the role of police chief, it’s probably the most impactful position in city government.

“The biggest moves she helped lead were really around baking our goals around race equity and climate change into the planning and operations of the department,” said Bender.

Transportation policy is not a discipline for the impatient. When it comes to street design, even little things like adding a crosswalk can often drag on for a year’s worth of process and approval. On top of that, dealing with the byzantine world of inter-jurisdictional funding and “ownership” of streets can be maddening for people who want quick results.

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Enter the quiet work of gathering data and working with spreadsheets.

“Director Hutcheson led a methodical, data-focused approach to getting policies in place,” explained Bender. “[She] changed operations like how we program our capital budget, which now uses race equity as a central feature in how we decide where to invest capital dollars in our budget and our transportation plans. [That] shift is a bigger deal than it might seem.”

To give one example, Minneapolis used to plan street maintenance using a complicated formula: Take the overall pavement quality (called the Pavement Condition Index, or PCI), and then combine it with other factors like the number of nearby prominent destinations, and overall traffic volume.

As Bender describes it, this formula invariably privileged already well-off parts of Minneapolis, ensuring they could jump ahead in the line for resurfacing or sidewalk reconstruction. Under Hutcheson’s direction, the city has changed that equation to treat everywhere in the city equally, based strictly on the PCI, bringing more dollars to working-class neighborhoods.

City of Minneapolis
Minneapolis Pavement Condition Index Map, overlaid with areas of concentrated poverty.
Much city work is similar behind-the-scenes stuff, where planning documents and long-range maintenance schedules quietly change people’s lives.

On that front, the Hutcheson years were productive. Since 2016, Minneapolis has adopted three large planning documents, including the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan (full of transportation policy), the Vision Zero Action Plan, and, most recently, the 10-year Transportation Action Plan (TAP).

The first big step was Vision Zero, aimed at ending fatal crashes in the city. It’s an ambitious goal made harder by the increasing size and speed of private vehicles and our increasingly distracted age. So far, unlike the cars on Lyndale Avenue, it’s been slow going.

“They could have done it a lot of different ways, but she led the department and staff [by] digging into data,” said Bender, describing the Vision Zero process. ”What data show about crash rates, identifying high crash rate corridors and intersections in our city, [they] spent a year writing a plan responding to that.”

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Meanwhile, the latest plan, the TAP, tries to put the city’s ambitious goals into practice. If done well, the next few years should bring big changes to city streets.

“The most significant [achievement] is the creation of the Transportation Action Plan, which is as bold and ambitious as any city in the U.S.” said Ashwat Narayanan, of Our Streets Minneapolis. “Its goals include a significant mode shift, to have 3/5ths of all trips made by bike, walk, or transit by 2030; and to have strong climate goals to reduce CO2; [and it’s] overlaid with a racial equity analysis, prioritizing transportation investments to ameliorate the worst impacts of discriminatory decision making in the past.”

What about ribbon cutting?

Most people only notice attention-grabbing things like the closing of a street for a new plaza, or a ribbon-cutting debut of a new bridge.

It hard to point to any headline news from the Hutcheson years. The only one that springs to mind is the temporary Hennepin Avenue bus-only lanes, part of a trial project that Bender called “critical to building support.”

For the most part, where Minneapolis Public Works has shined has been little things like bollards, bike lane extensions, crosswalk striping, advanced stop bars, or signal timing.

New bollard curb extensions in Sidney Place and Malcolm Avenue S.E.
Courtesy of Evan Roberts
New bollard curb extensions in Sidney Place and Malcolm Avenue S.E.
It helps that many of those changes have become so mainstream in Minneapolis that they’re rarely controversial anymore. Instead of drawn-out public meetings and angry neighbors handing out fliers, improvements just quietly appear on the margins of streets. Or, as Bender described it, “we’ve gotten to a place with transportation where it’s not so much drama.”

I reached out to Bill Dooley, a long-time transportation geek, and member of Minneapolis Major Taylor Bicycle Club, to see what he made of Hutcheson’s tenure at Public Works.

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“Robin held the line on bicycling gains and worked toward bicycle infrastructure improvements,” he told me. “A couple of things that needed a bigger push from the city: first, a more public fight with Hennepin County regarding bicycling improvements on Hennepin County roads; and, second, more money spent on snow removal after a light snowfall when temps were forecast to drop, leaving the roads rutted for several days.”

Dooley’s criticism of Hennepin County is a widespread complaint throughout the city. Any list of Minneapolis most dangerous intersections is dominated by streets controlled not by city Public Works department but by Hennepin County engineers and officials. That’s why Our Streets Minneapolis has been increasingly focusing its advocacy at the county level, launching a campaign aimed at changing the priorities and practices at Hennepin County Public Works.

That said, there are still a lot of room to work on Minneapolis streets for whoever takes over the department in 2021.

“Sidewalks are still uncleared of ice and snow in many parts of the city,” said Narayanan. “Transit takes longer than driving for most trips, and a large majority of public right-of-way is still given over to the storage and movement of cars. If the TAP is implemented, a lot of this will change, but it will take bold and visionary leadership.”

Under Minneapolis governance, the mayor’s office recruits and nominates the department directors. Advocates like Narayanan and others are hoping that Mayor Jacob Frey makes the new Public Works position a priority, keeping that work in the spotlight. (I reached out to Frey’s office for comment on this piece and did not hear back.)

“It really matters who our department heads are for the direction the city goes with any particular issue,” said Bender. “We need someone who’s willing to lead and support change and support their staff in coming up with innovative ideas.”