New Starting Conditions, Old Habits

This week, Chuck is offline and playing catchup from several intense weeks of travel and writing. Nate, Justin and I are continuing the transportation related binge from last week, venturing into transit and other communal transportation option fare and making a triumphant return of the Friday News Digest. We hope that those of you who do not get enough transit discussions from Strong Towns will join us for the ride.

I'm going to dive into a broad and deep topic of how transit is governed and funded in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, with a little about operations in there for good measure. We have the good fortune of having a major transportation funding bill as the hottest item on our state political radar as well as a major transit project flirting with the edge of implosion.  So for once, people who aren't transit wonks are paying some attention. 

I'd ask those of you outside the region to read and see if anything sounds familiar to you in your part of the country. I think you'll see, we're looking for some fresh ideas, if you have any to share.

And to be absolutely clear, this post is coming from a person who wants to see transit succeed and furthermore wants it to be financially successful for our region. However, we're having some ups and downs right now. It is getting really confusing out there and detractors of the whole idea of transit are taking advantage. Justifiably so. What is out there lately does not make us look very competent as a region. We should start by going back to basics and see if we can tighten up our approach.

For a transit system to be loved, used widely, and also financially robust, it needs to:

  • Work for people of all income and social strata
  • Perform on schedule and at times of the day and week when we need it
  • Be a better alternative (time and money) than making that trip by car
  • Have clear and consistent mechanisms for funding

The short story is that we've got a long ride ahead. We spent the better part of the last 40 years dreaming up a radial commuter rail system that was focused primarily on moving people from edge to center and back. Given the time the plan was born, circa the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was a very rational system plan responding to conditions on the ground - people and business moving to the edge. Since that point, the edge has continued to get further from the center(s) and we managed to not build any segments of the system until the last ten years.

Now that we've gained some political traction to design and build the rest, we are in a different place in history. For one, growth on the edge has slowed significantly. The Minneapolis, St. Paul and a few adjacent municipalities are seeing a big uptick in new housing starts and young families moving in, which hasn't happened for a long, long time.  

If we drew a line in the sand today and looked forward to what the future might look like, we have very different starting conditions than we did forty years ago. As it relates to transit, here are three big ones:

  • The federal government, a significant funder of large transit projects, is broke. Really, really broke. What money they are still giving out, is based on a much wider set of criteria than cost effectiveness per mile or rider. A best case scenario for the rule of thumb of what each major metropolitan region in the country could possibly expect to see at current funding levels is 100 million dollars a year. Best case. Reliability of that funding though, not what it used to be, though.
  • We have many more government agencies involved as serious players in the transit negotiations game as multiple counties, multiple cities and a much more robust Met Council vie to create a vision for the future. And we have a funding animal called CTIB, which is sandwiched in between the counties and Met Council, a product of statewide political maneuver less than a decade ago.
  • We have some dedicated local funding and some dedicated right of way for transit. The regional funding source, sales tax, has generated good revenue, but has created significant regional ire as various levels of government wrangle to decide future capital expenditures.  That funding also helps operations, which is a huge plus. The ROW, that's money in our pocket, except that we have to accept that there are potentially a few drawbacks in location and context with where much of it is at.

Looking back at what transit we have put into service and the plans that are in design, I'd sum it up to say we've got mixed outcomes. At worst, projects with high price tags and debatable merits or rough side effects. At best, projects which were perhaps expensive but saw massive benefits as soon as it opened or even before.   

The worst side effect that we didn't fully understand (with Northstar and Hiawatha) learned how to do right (with Central) and then have started unlearning again (with Southwest, Bottineau and Red Line) is that land use around transit is really, really important.

The second worst side effect is how the transit fits into its context really matters. Turns out, putting a light rail line next to a massive, high speed stroad is not so friendly to anyone not inside a car. BRTs in highways, not any better. And in freight ROW where all the building's backs are turned to the line and there are lots of other live tracks in the way - those are not easy conditions to address. We were on the winning end of all those things and more with Central Corridor and it is poised to knock it out of the park.

It is nonetheless troubling to see that our regional transit map has future lines that share ROW with stroads and highways and often are through land use patterns that are either A) Not very walkable  B) Will cost a tremendous amount of money to make walkable or C) Are close to major destinations, but the station is  just far enough away to make it difficult to get to.

How could this be?  I thought we'd figured out how to do transit right with Central Corridor?

Let's take a step back.

If a private entity was looking to build transit of various kinds in the Twin Cities on a set budget, what would it be looking to do in order to attract enough riders to make a return on its investments?  I'd propose the following might be a good place to start:

  • Connect the places where the most amount of people live and their destinations, work or play.
  • Pay special attention to people likely to take the system like those:
    A) Who have a lack of alternatives (need)
    B) Who have particularly compatible life status (like college students or elderly)
    C) Who want to ride by lifestyle choice (people who've located in geographic locations where transit is easy to serve and supported by robust walking and biking infrastructure)
  • Acquire land for development that would allow the entity to turn a profit on real estate as well as transportation infrastructure.

If you plotted these factors on a heat map of the region, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the places most worth connecting and the routes between them would not form a radial plan connecting edge to center. At least not without A LOT of squinting. That's just with the way things are today. I won't try to posit what the changing regional demographics are suggesting will be a very different upcoming decade from the last three.

I have some ideas about what such a map would look like, but I need some more help to figure that out.  If you are interested in the exercise, email me at, I'm hoping to convene a group this spring to actually play this scenario out and see what it means.

Anyhow, notice how the three principles do not mention anything about mode. Mode choice should be down the list of thought processes after we figure out where we are trying to put transit and who is going to pay for it. This is so the transit works as a system wide network and as a local solution.

This is the first place that politics and policy has started to alter the systemic viewpoint of our future plans. We get a democratic process to vote on the mode we want the most...we'll figure out how to pay for it later.  The second place our transit map is getting altered is from our grand compromise scheme pulling money from across the region and spending it from the top down on the 'chosen' projects.

Let's cut a few jumping to conclusions off at the pass. I'm not trying to say that big transit projects should only be in dense urban cores. Or that the big cities get all the rail and the suburbs get all the buses.

I'm trying to open up a dialog that says that different people in different areas of the region have different ideas of how much they are willing to spend on transit and what performance that will transit will afford them. But we have a political structure and funding structure that is one size fits all. And furthermore governance and funding are divorced from each other.  

We'll pay for the investment with other people's money, so why are you complaining?  Just wait your turn.

Well, I'm writing this post because I think that if we determined alignment and mode by which cities were willing to ante their own money to pay for that mode's construction and operation AND by who wanted to change their land use policies to have the best chance at generating new revenue for said ante - the map might look different.

Chaos you say?

As we progress this week, I'm going to take a close look at how the wheels have started to fall off our planning processes in the last year, making the outlook on the three projects next in the hopper, Southwest, Bottineau and Midtown Greenway/Lake Street, look shaky.  I'm also going to explore just why the alignments might look totally different if cities negotiated with each other to draw up transit lines and had to pay for their chosen mode directly to have it operated.  Assuming, the cities had a full toolbox of choices for how to tax themselves and derive revenue, that is.