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Should Metro Transit break away from the Met Council? Task force will explore making regional transit agency independent

A task force exploring whether the Metropolitan Council should be elected or appointed recently discussed separating the council’s transit planning from operation duties.

A Metro Transit light rail train.
Peter Callaghan

So far, the conversation about the future of the Metropolitan Council has been whether it should remain an appointed body or shift to one elected by voters in the Twin Cities region.

That is the primary charge of the Metro Governance Task Force, which was commissioned by the state Legislature. It is in the midst of a series of meetings with a deadline of reporting back to the Legislature by Feb 1.

But a decision between two obvious governance choices — appointed or elected — became more complicated after a hybrid idea entered the picture: What if Metro Transit was broken away from the jurisdiction of the Met Council and governed, as many similar agencies are around the U.S., by its own board? 

Elsewhere, such boards are made up of directly elected members (Denver) or people appointed by governors (Portland). The remaining Met Council would retain its regional planning authority — perhaps as an elected body, but perhaps not — and would continue to coordinate regional transit and transportation planning. It would also continue its duties with regional wastewater treatment, regional parks and housing.

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The new Metro Transit agency board would be similar to suburban transit agencies in the region but would be much larger.

Task force member Kristin Beckmann, an appointee of Gov. Tim Walz, raised the idea during last week’s task force meeting. It came after a presentation on different regional governance models by University of Minnesota transportation researcher Kyle Shelton and Humphrey School of Public Affairs researcher Frank Douma.

“In the conversation about governance, has there ever been a move to have a different governance system just for Metro Transit, separate from Met Council?” Beckmann asked. Most of the discussion at the task force meetings has been around whether electing Met Council members would result in better governance, she said. But last week’s presentation “feels like it is leading us towards” a separate Metro Transit board and a separate Met Council. They could be made up of local government officials from the region — a council of governments — or popularly elected members. 

“So we have one group thinking big about the region and one group thinking micro about transit delivery,” said Beckmann, a former deputy chief of staff for Walz and a former deputy mayor of St. Paul.

Task Force chair Frank Hornstein, the DFLer from Minneapolis who also is chair of the House Transportation Committee and co-author of the legislation creating the task force, explained why he was smiling about Beckmann’s idea.

“I’m smiling because this is something I’ve really thought about a lot in recent weeks,” he said. “That is definitely something that … I hadn’t thought about until we convened as a task force.”

The Twin Cities had an independent board called the Metropolitan Transit Commission starting in 1967. In 1984, a coordinating body was created, the Regional Transit Board. Both were abolished and its duties melded into the Met Council in 1994.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Read this 2014 MinnPost story about an earlier effort to change how the Metropolitan Council is governed. 

The university’s Shelton had just explained that the Met Council is both the planner and coordinator of regional transportation and transit and is also the operator of Metro Transit, the largest bus system in the seven-county metro area. Other so-called opt outs, including SouthWest Transit and the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, also operate in the region. 

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Shelton, who serves as director of the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, said only Las Vegas has a governance model where a regional planning agency also operates the transit service. The Met Council has advisory committees for many parts of its jurisdiction — such as how it spends federal transportation funds and how it navigates land use and environmental services. But that doesn’t exist for transit operations, Shelton said.

“That is a governance gap in some ways,” he said.

Shelton describes what he termed an “innate tension” between regional transit planning and the transit operations role. Many of the suburban transit agencies have separate boards that are subject to regional planning decisions made by the Met Council, which operates a sometimes competing transit agency.

“There is a natural question that I assume those folks ask themselves of: ‘Are you asking us this as a regional planning organization or as potentially a transit competitor?’ They aren’t always competing but if they are looking for (Federal Transit Administration) funds, for example, those different agencies could be in the same pool.”

“The council is the coordinator, collaborator and competitor with transit operations in this region,” Shelton said. “There is a trickiness there as well.”

Transit is the Met Council’s most-visible duty. Problems with the planning and construction of the Southwest Light Rail Transit — an extension of the current Green Line from Target Field to Eden Prairie — has driven most of the criticism of the agency and was the primary trigger for the creation of the task force. Critical reports from the Office of the Legislative Auditor have zeroed in on the council’s management of the Southwest LRT extension from Target Field to Eden Prairie.

While some suburban governments complain about the council’s growth limits and many local officials have raised questions about sewer access fees, it is light rail construction that draws most of the fire. Some on the task force have expressed worry that those regional functions of the Met Council might be harmed by a change in governance. Breaking the transit operating function away, while retaining the council’s regional planning duties, could be one way around that tension.

“I would like a governance structure that serves us beyond the problems of today and serves us tomorrow,” Beckmann said after the meeting. She said she expects the region to face freshwater supply challenges in the future, and an entity such as the Met Council would be well-placed to respond.

“We all share the same watershed,” Beckmann said.

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Portland’s Metro Council is often cited during the task force meetings. It is the only region in the U.S. with an elected — rather than appointed — regional council. But it does not operate the transit system (though that Metro Council does operate the Portland Zoo). TriMet is governed by a separate board appointed by the governor of Oregon.

In an interview last week, Hornstein said that while he supports an elected Met Council, he is open to other ideas. Breaking Metro Transit away is one of them.

“Not until the task force had I really delved into other organizational structures I found interesting,” Hornstein said. Combining both regional planning and transit operations in one agency is rare. Metropolitan Planning Organizations are required by federal law to conduct long-range transportation planning and distribute some federal transportation money. There are eight in the state, some crossing state lines with Wisconsin and North Dakota 

“This is worth exploring,” Hornstein said. “One of the reasons I like it is because it is far-more common in other regions. And it is really the transit piece of the Met Council that has been under the microscope, that has created the issues. I don’t hear complaints about the wastewater system, I don’t hear complaints about the park system. Housing is never ideal but I haven’t heard of red flags around the HRA (Housing and Redevelopment Authority). It really seems to be around the transit system.

“Now you have a concept where we could zero in on making that more accountable,” he said.

Shelton said in an interview that “almost no one does what the Met Council does,” in terms of both planning regional transit and operating one of the bus and rail systems. Almost everyone else does not put operations under their regional organization.”

One model could see the Met Council continuing to plan regional transit systems and approve new rail and bus rapid transit service. But the construction and operation of those lines would fall to an independent transit agency.

“That is how most of the other regional planning organizations work,” Shelton said.

How does transit governance fit into the work of the task force? “From my perspective it is fair to ask, ‘What is the goal of considering other structures?’” Shelton asked. “And if the goal is to really think about how do we have additional eyes and accountability on transit, a fundamental question is, is the overall Met Council arrangement — the structure — what gives folks what they want out of the transit operator?

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“To me that is a different, and probably smaller question, than changing the overarching structure of the council,” Shelton said. “Because changing the council to elected officials does not change the dynamic on the transit side. The same complication of planning and operations for transit would exist.”

Breaking Metro Transit away from the Met Council would also be less disruptive than a complete remaking of the Met Council governing structure that would require both state and federal approval, Shelton said. Any creation of a new transit agency would also be up to the Legislature.

“Everybody recognizes how disruptive it would be to, not just change the MPO (metropolitan planning organization) but to disrupt a regional governing body that does provide all of those essential services and coordinates all of those regional entities in the system. You don’t want to pause that for six months and say we have to figure that out. It’s definitely a big hairy problem, for sure.”