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The Twin Cities transit system is seriously off track

When Dakota County voted to pull out of the current scheme for funding transit capital projects, it underscored what has become increasingly apparent. The Twin Cities’ system for planning, developing and operating transit is cumbersome, inefficient and increasingly dysfunctional.

Steven Dornfeld

Nearly 50 years ago, when the Legislature created the Metropolitan Council, it decided that certain public services – notably transit and sewers – could be provided more efficiently and effectively at a regional level. But over the years, the council’s powers over transit have been seriously eroded and the counties have assumed the driver’s seat.

In 1980, the Legislature authorized each of the metro counties to establish a regional rail authority with broad authority and taxing power to promote and develop rail projects, including commuter rail and light rail transit (LRT). They became the primary vehicles for evaluating transit alternatives in major transportation corridors, and recommending the preferred mode and alignment to the Met Council.

In 2008, lawmakers went a step further, authorizing the creation of the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB). It gave metro counties the option to join the board and levy a quarter-cent sales tax as well as a $20 per vehicle excise tax – primarily to help fund the development and operation of bus and rail transitways. In the process, it effectively undermined the Met Council as the region’s premiere transportation planner.

Five of the seven counties – Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington – chose to join and levy the taxes. But members of the Dakota County Board have now voted to withdraw by the end of 2018, if not sooner, saying they have contributed 13 percent of the board’s revenues but received just 7 percent of its pooled funds. There have been hints that several other counties could follow.

Some would argue that the county-led system has worked well, producing the highly successful Blue (Hiawatha) and Green (University Avenue) LRT lines. In 2015, the Blue Line averaged more than 31,000 riders per weekday and the Green Line more than 37,000 – both exceeding the original estimates

But the system provides incentives for the counties to minimize the costs and problems associated with their pet projects, and push for their development – whether or not they are regional priorities. A few examples:

  • The $320 million Northstar commuter rail line, pushed by Anoka and Hennepin counties, has been a costly disappointment. The 40-mile line, extending from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis and completed in 2009, originally was expected average 3,400 riders per weekday in its first year of operation. Northstar has yet to hit that number, averaging just 2,548 riders per weekday in 2015. And its operating subsidy per rider is a whopping $14.15 per one-way trip. (In comparison, the operating subsidy per LRT rider is $1.67).
  • The $243 milllion purchase and renovation of St. Paul’s Union Depot, led by Ramsey County, produced a beautiful but largely vacant building. It was touted as a multimodal transit hub and “a new platform for growth in St. Paul.” But it is unlikely to ever serve much more than the current two Amtrak trains per day, plus a few intercity and casino buses. As a result, the depot is not attracting the shops and restaurants once envisioned “to support and sustain” its operation. It had operating losses of $4.5 milllion in 2014 and $4.8 million in 2015.
  • On a much smaller scale, Washington County persuaded CTIB to help fund the $6.2 million Newport transit station, located in a former industrial area tucked beneath the Interstate 494-Highway 61 interchange. The station, with a heated waiting area and 170 park-and-ride spaces, is viewed by the county as a future stop on a possible bus rapid transit (BRT) from Hastings to St. Paul. But don’t expect to bump into a lot of people there.  As of this spring, it was serving an average of eight transit riders in the morning and 10 in the evening.

Parochialism is not the only problem that besets the current system for developing improved transit. These problems include:

Accountability and transparency: If the average citizen is trying to monitor a given transit project or see how his/her tax dollars are being spent, where does such a person turn? To the Met Council? Metro Transit? CTIB? His or her county rail authority? As a recent Citizens League report pointed out, depending on the status of the project, it might be one or two of these agencies – or all of the above.

Efficiency and effectiveness: The present funding scheme for major capital projects is strongly tilted in favor of rail, where buses might be the more cost-effective option. In 2015, Metro Transit provided 86 million rides, with 62.1 million on buses. Most transportation experts believe buses will continue to be the backbone of the region’s transit system for decades to come. But Metro Transit, an operating arm of the Met Council, most often is scrambling for dollars just to keep the present bus system in operation, much less expand service.

Adequacy:  With respect to major transitway projects, the region’s biggest challenge is securing commitments for the 50 percent state-local funding needed to qualify for matching federal funds. The practice has been for CTIB to provide 30 percent, the participating county or counties 10 percent and the state 10 percent, but Republican lawmakers in recent years  have blocked any state funding.

To keep the $1.86-billion Southwest LRT project alive, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Met Council were forced this year into a risky stop-gap funding plan that will keep it eligible for federal funding. But it hardly represents a viable solution for funding future transit improvements.

In an ideal world, the Legislature would take a fresh look at the role of counties in transit, reinstate the Met Council as the region’s lead agency for transit planning and governance, and provide it with an adequate funding source – one that would allow the Twin Cities to keep pace with other major metro areas. But that is unlikely to happen.

Critics say the 17-member council already has too much power for a body appointed by the governor. But past legislatures and governors repeatedly have rejected proposals to make the council elective, fearing it would become too powerful and too independent.

Moreover, neither the Met Council nor transit has had a lot of champions at the Capitol, particularly in the Republican-controlled House. Any significant improvements in the system would require major changes in the composition and priorities of the Legislature.

Steven Dornfeld was a longtime government reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, covering the Legislature, politics and public affairs. More recently he has written for MinnPost. He also worked as an editorial page writer and editor for the Pioneer Press. From 2003 to 2011, he was the Metropolitan Council’s director of public affairs.


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/26/2016 - 09:55 am.

    Lets not forget partisan obstruction

    Mass transit has become a dog whistle for the right in the Metro. It signifies the risk of the inner-city minorities coming out to the largely white suburbs. In addition mass transit is usually used by either downtown or low income patrons.

    Rather than trying to come together to reduce congestion, improve air quality in metro zip codes, reduce car wear and tear, enhance economic development along lines and reduce noise pollution in metro areas, they fight over how many and who uses it. As someone who has lived in both areas, mass transit that was sensible has never been the issue. Demonizing urban areas and who uses it has been.

    Transit lines are long term investments and to expect short term results is a bit nutty. We are living in a temporary lull in oil prices which biases against mass solutions. We are planning for 20-30 years, not 5. Washington and Dakota counties have no problem asking for metro money for MUSA and road expansion, but want to back out when the costs of their use of the urban roads are not paid or accounted for.

  2. Submitted by Robert Jacobs on 09/26/2016 - 11:51 am.

    We’re asking the wrong questions

    I have to shake my head when I see all these discussions, suggesting that the only way to plan 20-30 years ahead is to rely on technology that’s little removed from streetcars from the 1890s. Instead of looking ahead, policy makers get sucked into an idealogical battle. It doesn’t matter what your ideology is. It won’t trump business math.

    We don’t suffer from a lack of funding. We suffer from a deficit of imagination.

    Pretty much every car company in the world is working on autonomous cars–GM and Ford have announced their first vehicles, which will arrive in 2021, will be incorporated into fleets of autonomous taxis. And yes, 2021 is the same year that the new light rail line extensions are scheduled to open. They’ll be economically obsolete a few years after opening.

    Tesla and GM have already announced electric cars that will retail for under $40,000. There’s no reason to believe the auto industry can’t build an electric powered autonomous cab for less than $60,000. Add $15,00 for surface vehicle storage and a charger shared by multiple vehicles and your net cost of $75,00 per vehicle can be bonded for less than $30 per day. Electricity is less than 5¢ per mile. You don’t have to pay a driver.

    Ford and GM make less than $1,000 in profit, on average, for each new car they sell. That means, once they break even, the annual revenue that they gain from stealing a customer from LRT is equal or greater than the profit they make from selling a new car. And they’ll make that profit for the life of the cab–likely at least a decade. And with ride sharing, they’re likely to have more than just one customer above break-even on a daily basis–more like 5-10. That means that over the life of a cab, it can generate 50-100 times the profit as Ford or GM could by their traditional business model of selling a car once. They have a fiduciary responsibility to steal every public transit customer they can. Why wouldn’t they? They can profitably offer better service for the same price. If you had a choice of being picked up at your front door and being dropped off at your final destination, without a transfer, versus waiting for a bus or train, which would you choose?

    Lift’s Line service has already demonstrated that if people can save money, they’ll put aside their resistance to sharing a ride with a stranger. Really, ride sharing in an autonomous cab is little different than in a bus or a train. A typical highway lane can carry 2,000 vehicles per hour. A stream of 4-passenger autonomous cabs can carry up to 8,000 passengers per hour. And you can have that capacity for every highway in the metro. Based on demand, you can even have that for multiple lanes. The capacity of the Green Line is 3,600 per hour. The Blue Line is 5,000. Autonomous taxi service will be like adding dozens of light rail lines to the metro. So why are we fretting and fighting over LRT and BRT?

    If we do absolutely nothing on public transit, by 2025 we’ll see better results. We’ll save more energy, we’ll have less congestion and we’ll have greater access to jobs–autonomous cabs can serve every neighborhood. Just stay out of the way of the auto and tech industry’s way. No tax increases required.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 09/26/2016 - 12:13 pm.

    “cumbersome, inefficient and increasingly dysfunctional.”

    The following editorial comment by Steven Dornfield is a simple statement of both state and federal government: “The Twin Cities’ system for planning, developing and operating transit is cumbersome, inefficient and increasingly dysfunctional.”

    That accurate statement is support by itself for placing our tax dollars as close to the voting tax payer as possible. The cities and townships deserve block grants since cities and townships represent the residents the best.

  4. Submitted by John Webster on 09/26/2016 - 12:16 pm.

    The Only Effective Mass Transit Plan

    I’ve used and enjoyed mass transit in the Twin Cities and in many other metro areas in the U.S. and Europe. There are many benefits to good mass transit: it lessens road congestion, it’s better for air quality, it can limit sprawl, etc.

    The essential component to effective mass transit is population density where mass transit moves large numbers of people to and from employment. The problem for mass transit here is that a huge percentage of people live in suburbs and also work in suburbs where no viable mass transit can ever exist. Every municipality competes with every other municipality to attract employers with tax benefits and other subsidies. So United Health Care, Best Buy, Target, etc. locate in suburbs for cheaper land, for lower taxes, and to avoid $15/hour minimum wage laws in the very left-wing Minneapolis and St. Paul. Those same employers then demand that taxpayers subsidize mass transit so that their employees can get to and from work.

    The only way in the long run to have cost effective mass transit in the Twin Cities is for downtown Minneapolis to have 100,000+ more office employment jobs, i.e. much more employment needs to be concentrated in a smaller area so that people can ride in from the suburbs and return home after work. Widespread suburb to suburb mass transit will never make sense here – the population density is nowhere close to being high enough. If we want truly effective mass transit, we have to incentivize employers to locate in a concentrated area, or zoning laws will have to require that concentration.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 09/26/2016 - 12:19 pm.

    Excellent critical overview

    Yes, it’s clear that the Met Council needs greater authority, and that local officials have gotten in the way of sensible planning. My great personal bete noir has been the way St. Paul and Ramsey County officials made the Green Line into a local quasi-streetcar line, in their preoccupation with supposed stimulation of development, and the Met Council failed to exercise the authority to prevent the loss of what should have been a regional transit trunk line. (Another example is the proposed Gold Line.)

    Anyone who gets on a Twin Cities freeway at afternoon rush hour must realize that we had better take steps to deal with transportation needs. Sensible long-range regional planning lies outside the domain of local officials.

    An elected Met Council could offer a way forward out of this mess, not just through greater authority but greater accountability and transparency. Of course the Met Board needs to pay good attention to local concerns and local officials, but the commissioners should be elected directly from districts of equal population and be empowered by the public who might then actually know who represents them and what’s going on.

  6. Submitted by Derek Thompson on 09/26/2016 - 01:45 pm.

    Avoiding The Balkanization of the Twin Cities

    Improving the metros transit system is vital to the future of the metro. While we are busy trying our best to turn down $928.8 million in federal funds our peer metros are expanding their transit network and leaving us behind. Without adequate transit networks we will be forced to continue with our unsustainable sprawling infrastructure.

    However, we seem to fractured to make the changes needed. Our political climate is one of in-state/outstate, urban/suburban, rich/poor, etc. Maybe the best option is to make the Met Council elective. Maybe it will make the Met Council too powerful or too independent, but at least it would reflective the needs of the metro instead of a bunch of cities and counties trying to do their own thing. Having all these independent cities and counties don’t make a lot of sense when they all rely on each other.

  7. Submitted by Steve Morris on 09/26/2016 - 03:28 pm.

    Transit services, like roads, have a regional and local impact.

    The lack of local input/control over the Met Council helped generate the Railroad Authorities and CTIB. That lack of local control also created the several independent opt-out suburban transit services that operate some of the most heavily subsidized bus services in the region. Those higher subsidies come at the expense of service to riders in the core cities.

    Simply doing away with all of those entities in favor of the Met Council, whether appointed or elected, won’t solve the problem. Some hybrid structure that has a mix of elected and appointed officials is often used in other areas and could work here. Sadly, a more likely outcome is either inaction or layering on another organizational level.

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/26/2016 - 04:37 pm.

    Having spent much of my life car-free

    I am very aware of the inadequacies of Metro Transit.

    I wonder how many of the commenters above have ever lived without a car for extended periods of time. I did, first between the ages of 18 and 35, and again in the ten years before I moved back here.

    Having been easily car-free in Portland, I tried to do the same here. It turned out to be impossible. There were far too many “you can’t get there from here” situations, too many examples of long waits between runs, too many lines with no weekend service, too many areas completely unserved.

    For all the current bragging about “frequent service,” the service is frequent only on certain sections of the lines. For example, the #6 is frequent service only if you ride it between the downtown library and 39th and Sheridan Avenue South. If you want to cross the river to the East Bank of the U or go to 50th and France or Linden Hills, service is every 20 to 30 minutes.

    I also think it was stupid to terminate the Green Line at Union Station. Swinging the line around near the Ordway, the Science Museum, and other downtown St. Paul attractions on a return loop would have attracted more riders from Minneapolis. Yes, there’s the #20 bus–if you have a lot, a LOT, of time to spare. Critics complain about the slowness of the Green Line. Try the #20 for adding an extra twenty or thirty minutes to Uptown and an extra ten to twenty minutes to downtown.

    One of the commenters above has stated that the function of a transit system is getting people back and forth to work, but that is a wrong-headed approach and probably the number one reason for our system’s inadequacies. If you’ve been downtown at 5PM, you know that Metro Transit already provides service to working people, including express buses to all parts of the metropolitan area.

    The proper question, the key to building a great transit system, is “How can we make it easy to live without a car?” If I were Transit Czarina, I would make the following changes:

    1. All Metro Council personnel involved in transit planning would have to give up their cars for six months. In response to protests that this would inconvenience them, I’d say, “Tell the region’s non-drivers something that they don’t know.”

    2. If the SW Light Rail does not get built according to its original plan, I would terminate it in Hopkins (who moves to Eden Prairie with the thought of “I want to ride transit”?), a potentially transit-friendly area with its old-style downtown. The excuse for the Eden Prairie terminus is to bring North Side residents to jobs in that area, but oddly enough, the line does not penetrate very far into the North Side. If there is to be no LRT at all, replace it with a beefed-up #12 line that serves the Excelsior-Grand area, Methodist Hospital, Hopkins, and the town of Excelsior, which would make it possible for people in those areas to live car-free and/or reach major sources of jobs.

    3. All #6 lines would be frequent service and would cross the river to serve the increasingly dense East Hennepin area and the U and connect with the Green Line. Any other line that serves major commercial districts, sources of jobs, and/or walkable neighborhoods would be made frequent service.

    4. All arterial streets would have frequent bus service for their entire length. This should be a no-brainer, but major streets, such as 26th Street, 50th Street, Lyndale, and Park and Portland Avenues in Minneapolis are served for only sections of their lengths.

    5. In the long term, I would extend the Green Line from Stillwater to Excelsior and the Blue Line from Anoka to Hastings. The final step would be a “beltline,” connecting dense areas and major employers in the inner suburbs, with connections to the Green and Blue Lines.

    6. Take another look at the proposed Bottineau Line, too. The approved route skips North Memorial? What? How else is it out of line with reality?

    This is no longer quiet, provincial Minneapolis and St. Paul, but one of the faster growing areas in the northern part of the U.S. We may not have a lot of density now–although there’s a lot more than there was even when I moved back here in 2003–but for the future, our choice is either more density and better transit in something close to the existing footprint of the metro area or endless sprawl and people commuting from Princeton and Faribault on choked highways.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2016 - 09:41 am.

    Unduly gloomy

    The fact that the current system leaves a lot to be desired is undeniable, but I think Dornfeld is unduly gloomy when he criticizes some of these projects. The transit system we’re working on is a long game, so stations or lines that are currently underused may well come into their own in the future.

    The problem with the commuter rail is that the republicans kept it from going all the way to St. Cloud. If that mistake is ever corrected ridership will likely hit it’s targets and beyond. Other projects like high speed rail to Duluth and Rochester will bring more people into St. Paul but that’s not going to happen next week.

    I’m not sure reverting back to a Met Council only model is the panacea of efficiency Dornfeld claims it would be. In theory it makes sense but in reality it’s not unlikely that feuds and battles between the Council and local governments would stall projects. The system we ended up with may be clunky but it has brought local government into the process.

    The Dakota County Board is just being stupid. They may be getting a 7% return on their 13% contribution today, but as the system expands they’d get more in the future. Meanwhile they still want transit but think they can pay for it all themselves? They’re already complaining about losing funding but what did they was going to happen to their funding when they leave in 2018? Whatever.

    By the way, self driving cars may be the automobiles of the future, but they’re not the transit solution of the future. Converting to SDC’s just changes the type of cars sitting in gridlock, using resources inefficiently, it won’t move more people more cost effectively or efficiently. And by the by the way, self driving cars have existed for over 100 years, they’re called “trains”. It’s amazing, you just sit down they take you where you want to go.

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