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My focus for the region: Ensuring efficient growth, building our transit system and expanding regional parks

With the merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems, this new facility stands as a proud symbol of how vital public services can be provided in an efficient manner through effective inter-governmental collaboration.I have a specia

Editor’s note: Here are excerpts from the annual State of the Region Address, delivered Monday by Peter Bell, chair of the Metropolitan Council, at the Minneapolis Central Library. The full text is available at the Metropolitan Council’s website

Peter Bell
Peter Bell

With the merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems, this new facility stands as a proud symbol of how vital public services can be provided in an efficient manner through effective inter-governmental collaboration.

I have a special fondness for libraries.  My mother was a schoolteacher and my best friend’s mother was a librarian. As a young boy, I recall them taking me for the first time to the historic St. Paul Central Library. I was awed not only by its classical columns, high ceilings and huge collection of books, but also by how quiet it was. It was never that quiet at school or at home!

Later, I used the Central Library to do a school paper on the Civil War. Little did I know that some 40 years later, I would be dealing with several communities that would like to secede from the region!

A year of introspection, progress

For the Metropolitan Council, 2007 was a year for introspection. It marked the 40th anniversary of the Council’s creation by the Minnesota Legislature. We used the year to reflect on the problems that led to the Council’s creation, the considerable progress that has been made in the last four decades and the lessons that have been learned.

Our efforts included collaborating with Twin Cities Public Television to produce a half-hour documentary on the history of regional governance in the Twin Cities. 

We also did something that is rare among both public and private institutions:  We joined with the Citizens League, the Humphrey Institute and the McKnight Foundation to conduct a day-long Regional Policy Conference — to engage in a bit of self-examination and look for ways in which the Council could improve.

However, 2007 was far more than a year of introspection. Our Council and region also moved forward aggressively on a number of important fronts:

• We secured federal funding to begin construction of the region’s first commuter rail line in the Northstar Corridor, and moved forward with plans for our second light-rail line in the Central Corridor.

• We won a $133 million federal grant to improve transit and ease traffic congestion in two busy corridors in the Twin Cities metro area.

• We continued to build Metro Transit ridership, providing 77 million rides. That represents an increase of nearly 5 percent over 2006 and the largest total since 1982.

• We increased our use of clean, renewable fuels and partnered with the University of Minnesota on research aimed at developing new sources of renewable energy, and

• We gained approval of legislation authorizing a new Regional Parks Foundation to help accelerate the acquisition of land for our regional parks system.

* * * *

Regional indicators mostly positive

As we assess the State of the Region, we must acknowledge that our metro area has faced some challenges in the last several years as a result of our sluggish national economy.

New jobs have been hard to come by. Net employment in our region has remained almost flat in the last several years after recovering from a dip in 2002.

Meanwhile, housing production has declined sharply in the last two years.  In 2007, about 9,000 building permits were issued for new homes — down from the 18,000 to 21,000 permits issued annually earlier in this decade.

Still, we have averaged slightly more than 17,000 new homes per year between 2000 and 2007. That’s about the number we need to keep pace with our projected population growth.

The Twin Cities metro area remains a growing and prosperous region with many assets. Between 2000 and 2006, our population grew by 180,000 people. That’s the equivalent of two Bloomingtons being added within the boundaries of the seven-county area.

Among the 25 largest metropolitan areas, we rank:

• First in workforce participation,

• First in home ownership,

• Fourth in the percentage of adults with a college education, and

• Seventh in per-capita income.

A recent national survey even ranked the Twin Cities as the seventh-best place to have “fun” among 50 metro areas … because of our wide range of sports, entertainment, shopping and cultural opportunities.

And — this may surprise some of you:  According to a recent survey, our region ranks only No. 14 among the top 25 metro areas in the number of rude drivers. Based on my daily commute, I think our ranking should be much higher!

More importantly, our region is blessed to have a good educational system that offers real choice … a leading research university … 18 Fortune 500 companies … abundant natural assets … and a quality of life that is second to none.

Not surprisingly, folks like it here … almost as much as Mary Richards once did! Our annual residents survey — which we are releasing today — showed that 94 percent rate the Twin Cities metro area as a better place to live than other metro areas.

They especially appreciate our natural environment — 35 percent rate our parks, trails and natural areas as our region’s most attractive feature.

Again last year, transportation and traffic congestion ranked as one of the top concerns among metro area residents: 37 percent listed it as the region’s single most important problem, followed by crime at 32 percent and growth issues at 7 percent.

Goal One: Improving transportation
Over the last five years, our Council has focused on four major goals.  I’d like to spend a few minutes this morning reporting on our progress in each of these areas and discussing what lies ahead.

One of our highest priorities is to improve our region’s transportation system, build transit ridership and slow the growth in traffic congestion. Our vision is contained in our 2030 Transportation Policy Plan, which we will be updating by the end of this year after a thorough study and input from local officials and the public.

Our transportation vision calls for:

• Expanding our existing bus system, adding new express bus and limited-stop routes,

• Providing additional bus-only shoulder lanes, passenger stations and park-and-ride lots, and

• Developing a network of rail and bus “transitways” that give transit a travel-time advantage over the single-occupant car.

With the support of Gov. Pawlenty, we have made major strides toward achieving our vision.

Late last year, we secured a Full Funding Grant Agreement that commits more than $156 million in federal matching funds for the Northstar commuter rail line between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake.

Even before that grant was formally in place, the Council and our project partners broke ground for the line’s maintenance facility in Big Lake and a new inter-modal station in downtown Minneapolis. We also began a four-block extension of the Hiawatha LRT line to connect with Northstar near the new Twins ballpark. 

The Northstar locomotives and cars will feature colors reminiscent of the Hiawatha LRT vehicles, while retaining the “north star” icon that has long been associated with the project.

We are now on track to complete construction of the 40-mile line and begin passenger service by the end of 2009. It will serve a projected 5,900 riders per weekday by 2030 and provide a predictable, 41-minute commute from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis in one of our region’s fastest-growing corridors.

As I indicated earlier, our region was one of five metro areas to win funding last year under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new Urban Partnership program, which is designed to reduce traffic congestion.  The competition was intense, with 26 major metro areas competing for funds.

For our region, the $133 million UPA grant will help accelerate the development of Bus Rapid Transit in two of our transitway corridors — I-35W and Cedar Avenue.

* * * *

LRT project moving forward
During the last year, we also moved forward aggressively with our efforts to develop our region’s second light rail transit line in the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

These efforts included opening a project office in the corridor, hiring key staff and consultants, establishing several committees to provide public input during the project and forging ahead with preliminary engineering. Our goal is to complete PE by this fall and apply for federal approval to enter final design.

As I have indicated before, the Central Corridor LRT project is my No. 1 priority. It offers an exciting opportunity to build upon the success of the Hiawatha line. It will provide improved access to employment, economic and educational opportunities along the corridor and elsewhere in the region.

As originally proposed, the 11-mile line would feature 16 stations, plus five shared stations with the Hiawatha line in downtown Minneapolis. It would terminate at the new inter-modal station near the Twins new ballpark, connecting with the Northstar commuter rail line.

Let me be clear on this point: We are strongly committed to securing the necessary state and federal funds to move forward with this project. However, some features of the project may have to change as we work to reduce the cost to meet federal cost-effectiveness requirements and qualify for federal funding. The estimated cost of the project, as originally proposed, is $990 million. And that figure doesn’t include all of the ideas on everyone’s wish list. If all of these enhancements were included, the cost of the project would rise to $1.25 billion.

That simply is not realistic. We believe we must reduce that cost to about $840 million if we are to meet the federal CEI.  That’s why we have been carefully scrutinizing all of the major elements of the proposed line.

Our challenge is all the more difficult because we will have some costs that were not included in the original plan. 

For example, we will have to reinforce the Washington Avenue bridge to accommodate LRT. And we may have to build platforms to serve three-car trains, which ultimately will be needed to serve the heavy ridership we anticipate on this line.

During the next few weeks, the Council and our project partners will face some difficult choices as we make the final project scope decisions. I would caution our project partners and community advocates not to draw lines in the sand.  Compromises will need to be made, just as they were made on the Hiawatha and Northstar lines.

You may recall, for example, the Minneapolis business community originally wanted the Hiawatha line to be underground in downtown Minneapolis. And the original plan for Northstar called for going all the way to St. Cloud. But both plans had to be changed because of cost constraints.

The proponents of the Central Corridor line must be equally willing to compromise if we are to meet the CEI and win federal funding.  If they demand all of the “bells and whistles,” there may be no train.

Goal Two: Managing our growth
Another of the Council’s major goals is to work collaboratively with local communities to accommodate the region’s growth in an orderly, economical manner.

Our most important tool is the comprehensive planning process.  Every 10 years, the Council adopts a Regional Development Framework and system plans to guide the expansion of four regional systems — transportation, aviation, wastewater collection and treatment, and regional parks and open space.

We kicked off this process in 2005, when we completed our system plans and sent customized “system statements” to every community in the region, telling them how our regional plans would affect their community.  Under state law, every community must then adopt or update their local comprehensive plan, which must be consistent with our regional plans.

* * * *

Goal Three: Maximizing our investments
A third goal of the Council is to maximize the effectiveness of regional services, infrastructure and investments. There never will be enough resources to meet all of our public needs, so it is critical that we get the biggest bang for every regional buck.

Two years ago, the Council instituted an innovative program that provides incentives for communities to reduce the amount of clear water entering our wastewater treatment system through inflow and infiltration — or I and I. Clear water typically enters our wastewater system through cracks in local sewer pipes, or through sump pumps and foundation drains that are illegally connected to the sanitary sewer.  Excessive I/I robs our system of capacity needed to serve future growth.  During major storms, it also can cause sewer backups, resulting in threats to human health and the environment.

All 46 communities that were identified as having excessive I/I have made commitments to reduce the problem, thereby avoiding surcharges that would otherwise have been imposed. 

This is good news for the homeowners and businesses that support our regional wastewater system through their connection and user charges. We estimate that the I/I problem can be solved at the local level for about $150 million, compared to the $900 million it would cost to add sewer capacity at the regional level.

Reducing I/I is just one of the ways we have attempted to maximize the value of our regional investments. During my five years as Council chair, we have placed high priority on exercising prudent fiscal management throughout our agency.

* * * *

I am particularly proud that we have held the Council’s property tax levy flat for five years while maintaining our AAA bond rating.

Goal Four: Protecting our natural assets
The fourth goal of this Council is to protect and enhance our region’s vital natural assets, which contribute so much to our quality of life.  This means doing everything we can to protect and improve the quality of our air and water, as well as preserve irreplaceable natural areas.

As chair of the Council, I am particularly proud of our system of regional parks and trails. This 53,000-acre system provides opportunities for walking, biking, swimming, boating and many other forms of active recreation. It attracts more than 33 million visitors a year.  By comparison, the state parks system serves about 9 million visitors a year.

But our regional park system does much more.  It also protects and preserves natural features such as lakes and wetlands, hardwood forests and native prairies for future generations.

Our long-range plan calls for expanding the system to meet the needs of the region in 2030 and beyond.  Toward that end, we propose:

• To establish seven new regional parks,

• To acquire and develop seven new regional trails, and

• To acquire land within the boundaries of 30 existing parks and four existing trails.

All told, we would like to acquire more than 17,000 acres of park land and 700 miles of regional trails.

* * * *

Metro Transit’s “Go Greener” initiative is another of our major environmental efforts. Its aim is to increase our use of clean renewable fuels, improve our air quality and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Last year, we took delivery of 19 hybrid electric buses — the first of 169 hybrids that we will be adding to our fleet over the next five years. These hybrid buses deliver 22 percent better fuel mileage and produce 90 percent fewer emissions than the buses they replace.

With the addition of these new buses, more than one-third of all local bus trips on Nicollet Mall are now operated with hybrid buses.

For our conventional diesel buses, Metro Transit made the switch in August from a 5 percent biodiesel fuel to a 10 percent blend and will go to a 20 percent blend in the summer months starting this year.

To further reduce tailpipe emissions, we plan over the next five years to buy 164 buses that use the latest clean-diesel technologies.

* * * *

Government cannot satisfy every want and meet every need.  But we clearly have an obligation to provide a transportation system that will allow our residents to travel safely to work, school and other important destinations.

There is nothing we can do to restore the 13 lives that were lost in the bridge collapse.  However, I sincerely hope this tragedy will provide added impetus to achieving the passage this legislative session of a balanced transportation funding bill — one that addresses the critical highway, bridge and transit needs of our state and region.

On a personal note, I am now in my fifth year as Council chair. . . . In my remaining time as chair, my focus will continue to be ensuring the efficient growth of our region, building our transit system and expanding our system of regional parks to meet the needs of future generations.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Don Effenberger at deffenberger [at] minnpost [dot] com.