Why do you keep asking us to change to get this Transit Line?

Part Two of this weeks focus on transit in MSP. Here's Part One

I hear this, and read this, implicit exasperation all over the MSP region. Everyone is very excited to talk about new high-end bus lines or rail in various formats until you start talking about what you might have to do to implement them and ensure their success.

Multi-story buildings aren't in the character of our neighborhood. Why would we need to change our land use to allow them?

What do you mean we can't put the parking structure at our stop right next to the station?

But we own this right of way (next to/in the freight rail or stroad), why wouldn't we use it?

Much of this comes from the average citizen not having a cultural understanding of how land use patterns in the auto-oriented era of the last 60 years have fundamentally different performance capability from the traditional development pattern of the older, gridded core.

They are not dumb. They are not ignorant. They just don't have the benefit of the life experience where their transportation options included something that was equal to or better than getting into a car for every trip.  Even if you've lived in the core of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the prospect of taking transit may not have even come close to making sense in terms of time and money in the past.

The focus of this week's posts is to look mostly at how we are funding the future capital investments of our regional transit system.  But I want to stop for a moment and mention something that always falls off the wagon in these discussions. A few, very respected, voices have brought this up again in recent conversations and I want to highlight it right off the bat because it is so important:

This region needs a better dedicated source for funding local bus transit operations

This is the one place where I'm happy to tax everyone across the region in a slush fund-like manner. Just a little bit. Because it is very difficult to draw lines in the sand at geopolitical boundaries and say these people use a lot and these people use a little. We are big boys and girls. We pride ourselves as a world class region.  Basic local bus service is something we should be able to provide so that people have some way to move in our region outside a car, even if it's not fantastic everywhere all the time.

In the 2008 grand compromise that created the CTIB funding animal, we realized this and allowed some money from that pot to go to funding operations. Very smart. Start new service and give it a chance to actually get used the way it was intended. It beats tying someone's brand new shoelaces together and telling them to start running.

Nonetheless, local bus service is the main component (along with biking and walking) that gets people to their final destinations. Every day that goes by where it is faster to travel from a suburb like Eden Prairie to Downtown Minneapolis than it is for someone who lives in a outer neighborhood of Minneapolis itself to downtown, is one where it is difficult for us to get a excellent return on investment on our bigger expenditures.  Local bus service is the gateway drug to people believing that their lives can productively include traveling on transit.

If I could ask anything of the current MoveMN proposal, it would be that a greater proportion of the dollars of the pie being discussed be for dedicated local bus operations. More than new capital expenditures, even.  It's in there, but buried at the bottom, in a pat-on-the-head-amount for a handful of tireless advocates who realize how critical it is. If Metro Transit actually had some operations dollars to not only operate our current system more frequently, but also TEST new transit corridors before we spend billions and hope our projections didn't suck…It would be a lot easier to show empirically where our investments will have high ROI if we had ridership numbers and not just study projections.  

(Oh, you'd miss spending four years squabbling over which alignment would have 322 more riders at this station then that one? Then making a decision, getting the price, regretting that decision and spending another two years squabbling over whether to relook at making a different decision. My mistake.)

It disappoints me greatly that in all of our rhetoric about transit from officials in cities, counties and the state, the only consistent advocates for better local bus service are staff at Metro Transit. We've got our priorities misplaced and are spending millions doing studies and projections when much of that money could be better spent moving people.  Even if it's only an experiment, it would be better than a guess based on a highway oriented model that only knows how to predict your behavior if you are inside a two ton hunk of metal.

Here is where I transition back and call out another elephant in the room in the MSP region. A great number of the people planning, designing, building new capital transit expenditures - and those holding offices to approve all those actions - don't use transit.  This last set of elections in November swept into power a great deal of people who actually do. It is already high on a number of election platforms for this fall.

Again, pointing fingers is not the goal here. I already explained out how the lack of experience or knowledge with using transit is not explicitly someone's fault. But the lack thereof has a tendency to create trench warfare in our political scene. 

Long held views (that have been conventional wisdom for decades, mind you) on what creates economic prosperity and a high quality of life in a given municipality clash with people who have different beliefs on the definition of economic prosperity and a high quality of life.

What comes out of that when proposing something new and unpredictable often sounds like this at public workshops:

I want things to stay the same, except for adding this transit line, and we have to make sure we mitigate all the bad things that line will bring, even though I think the line will ultimately be a good thing for our town.

Heavily guarded optimism. The longer we've been around, the more likely it is we've been burned by the big project. Think about the highways that sliced into our urban fabric. The monolithic, ugly, high rises that replaced fine grained housing and interesting streetscape. The once shiny and new shopping complex that is now a hollow shell of former itself. The era of the Suburban Experiment scarred our collective psyche of what is likely to happen when we paint big, brush strokes our landscape.

Many in the transit advocacy community start slamming their heads against the wall when they hear statements like that from people at public meetings or in the media. Drives them nuts.

But go back to those three original statements about building typology, parking and right of way at the top.  Inside those sentences, you'll see that people might be willing to let you do something different if they can also keep what they know works. And whatever shiny new thing you do, it better be REALLY GOOD.

Define really good? In one word: Rail.

Now, I know that the official regional planning documents say that mode has not been determined for future transit corridors yet. But other than a few BRT lines down freeways, anytime you speak with your neighbors or friends about future transit, the conversation always ends up at rail. To the general public, rail is sexy.

But let's say the conversation moves to a gathering of elected officials, transportation advocate types and government professionals. Same thing. This is partly a function of our funding mechanisms. Whether it is local dollars from CTIB or federal New Starts funds, if everyone thinks they are going to get a rail line, it is politically easier to swallow when thinking about the part of the region that's currently getting a rail line.

"Oh, ours is coming. One day. Soon."

The way our current system is setup, counties (and now cities because they aren't happy with what comes from their counties) envision transit lines, pass some notes to the powers at CTIB to see if the funding is viable out of the Local Match Communal Slush Fund, and if those stars align, get the project into the regional transit plan and hand it off to MetCouncil to get money from the Feds to make it all come to life somehow.

"Phew, glad that public process is over"

I'm not sure what you've read in the headlines recently, but from what I've seen, that process doesn't seem to be working out so well. The projects that keep coming out of those processes are expensive, take the alignment path of least political resistance, and have huge variations in the types of land uses around the proposed stations (some awesome walkable places, others cornfields and swamps surrounded by stroads).  How well that line serves people and connects system wide destinations gets a little fuzzy along the way. MetCouncil gets one of these from each corner of the region, plots them on a single map and says:

"Sheesh. We don't have the money for all this. How do we make everyone happy?"

Given the realities facing our decision makers 5, 10, even 20 years ago, this process had some fairly rational underpinnings. But moving forward, if we admit that ANY mistakes were made in the past, it threatens the credibility of the current funders and disturbs the fragile regional equity component whereas each part of the region in the sales tax area wants its piece. Nevermind, that their piece of the pie is potentially a terrible transit investment that would never stand on its own merits outside this wacky game of transit line survivor.   

According to this logic, no transit project is a bad transit project. Trying to describe how that is not true makes everyone around here, REALLY, REALLY uncomfortable.

And it is getting tougher to have that conversation every year.

That's because the rules for getting money have changed, our population is growing all over the map in patterns we've never seen,  and the federal money pots are smaller (and possibly heading further downwards).  The good news is that we figured out what worked and didn't work in our region with the big transit projects we've built so far. But the bad news is that we haven't evolved our big picture planning process to take all of this new information into account. At least I'm not convinced we have.

It was so painful and long to gain the ground we have over the past 40 years, we have reached the same point of 'no retreat' in transit that our state road system approach has.

Dammit, we are going to build that radial transit plan even if it takes every last dime our region has for the next 30 years!  And we are going to build it exactly the way we drew it up in 198-whatever.

That's the meme I hear behind rhetoric I hear in our media and political dialog, at least. Maybe you hear otherwise.

We haven't stopped to consider that maybe that isn't the right system plan or that we aren't going to be able to fund it with the same mechanisms we have in the past.

The combination of those two factors changes, well, everything.

Furthermore, I'm skeptical about many municipalities of the region having the desire for transit that they say they do. How do I measure desire?  Working to change their land use policies, street designs and budgeting processes to take full advantage of a transit corridor when it finally arrives. Why is that?

They have no skin in the game.

The county will pay for that TOD study we need to do.

CTIB will pay for our local match component of the money that falls from the sky from the Feds.

The state, through State Aid, will pay for the reconstruction of that street where the rail is going to go or connect to the station.

Granted, various forms of tax dollars from that city's inhabitants have gone to the coffers of all those larger agencies, but that is mixed with dollars from people from all over the county, region and state. There's lots of other people's money helping to pay for the project in my town.

Modifying what we're doing right now with the city's own money and policies shouldn't be necessary.

Somebody else is going to pay for it and so I just need to hold my ground until I get what I want.

Making the project jump through all the hoops to be more competitive for funding and more functional to use is someone else's problem.  

Unless you are going to start raiding the general fund of your municipality to change the course, this train is going to keep on rolling. And for some, that will work out all right. For others…well, let's just say not everyone thinks it is working out all right.

I mean, has one of your city councilpersons ever said this?

“Now all of a sudden we’re being asked to sit quietly through a delicate moment when you slam this out of the ballpark and shove it down our throats."

Yikes. And these are people who generally support transit?

Orderly, but dumb.

When you combine:

  • Our lack of a current bus transit system that people believe already serves them well
  • Our lack of being able to test future transit lines by trying them out first
  • Our burned collective psyche from big projects gone bad from the past
  • Our lack of the most local units of government (where the average citizen feels they actually have some influence) having the ability to have skin in the game and negotiate in good faith

You get:

Why do you keep asking us to change to get this transit line?

Because we've separated the authority for land use policy from how we fund capital projects and transit operations, finding synergy between those two has been more of an academic exercise. And the region's interests sometimes end up at odds with local interests, even though WE SWEAR we are all on the same page.

When no single government entity is accountable at the bottom line of success, each agency has a scapegoat of another as why the project didn't work out so well.

"We TOLD them not to put the line there, see what happened?"

"If that city just did any zoning changes near their stations, maybe they'd see some development."

"Why do they keep asking for more land to park cars near the station?"

I'm not trying to characterize every city or county in the region is complacent or indifferent about these issues. But, there sure isn't a lot incentive for people to play nice in the sandbox politically. Or maximize the region's investment financially. Every politician is going to say they are for the line if they believe in transit one iota. But, by watching their actions, many government agencies just don't seem that into it. 

Into what?  Doing the heavy lifting of change that would make the lines runaway successes. And I can think of examples in our core cities as well as on the suburban edge.

No one is immune to the siren's call of other people's money. And no one is interested in other people telling them what to do in their community.

And if a municipality is just not that into it, should we make them?

These are tough questions. I don't have silver bullet solutions. I'd like to start with trying a few rational reponses. Let's explore doing two things:

  • Clarifying the hierarchy of transit service in our region and where is being served based on skin in the game. (This is easy)
  • Removing all the layers of government from transit planning, implementation and operation that aren't municipalities and Met Council, the transit system operator. (This is a pipe dream)

In the next post, we'll be back to explore these thoughts and address what that means for our tax bills and political entities.