Should we celebrate traffic congestion in Minneapolis-St. Paul?
After all, clogged highways are the result of lots of people in our region heading to school and work. The way our economy and schools function means that people travel during the same hours, so they can interact with one another. That’s not going to change without dramatically impacting our economy and society.
Traffic jams certainly beat the alternative — empty roads and depleted cities. So maybe we should be glad that it’s getting increasingly difficult to get around our region.
But the fact is that we all hate sitting in traffic. And we all want businesses and employees to thrive in our region. The conclusion is not that hard to reach — we need an “all of the above” approach to transportation.
The 2018 legislative session was an enormous missed opportunity. Legislators invested zero new dollars in transit. That’s unacceptable. Increased transit benefits not just transit riders but those behind the wheels of their own vehicles, too. It helps employers, who need efficient and dependable ways to get employees to work.
Access to jobs by transit is a key measure of economic competitiveness. The Regional Indicators Dashboard compiled by Greater MSP and eight partners and released earlier this month shows that Minneapolis-St. Paul is slipping on that measure. We fell from last year’s sixth-place ranking among 12 peer regions to seventh place this year. The dashboard measures the population living within 30 minutes of 100,000 jobs by transit or walking. We got worse on this measure two years in a row.
The Minneapolis Regional Chamber and our partners at the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and East Metro Strong advocated throughout the legislative session for additional investment in arterial bus rapid transit (aBRT). These buses get people to their destinations faster by making fewer stops and by using advanced design features to save time. Buses are equipped with automated signal priority systems that communicate with controls that can keep a green light shining longer or get a red light to change sooner.
We’ve already seen how successful aBRT can be — the A Line running between Roseville, St. Paul and Minneapolis saw a 35 percent increase in ridership in its first year of operation. A Line service cost about $27 million to launch, including $6 million for a dozen special buses with double-wide back doors to ease boarding. That’s a low-cost way to jump-start better transit in our region. It is the first of 10 aBRT lines planned for the Twin Cities by 2030.
The next phase of funding for aBRT is a common-sense way to invest in transit that had bipartisan support at the State Capitol. But it still didn’t get done.
Legislators and our next governor need to get past the knee-jerk, us-vs.-them narrative that has gripped the transportation discussion over the past several years. A thriving economy in the Twin Cities is a good thing for our entire state. Goods from Greater Minnesota frequently travel through Minneapolis-St. Paul. Having them stuck in traffic in the metro area, costing businesses and consumers money, doesn’t benefit anyone.
The regions across the U.S. we compete with for jobs and investment aren’t holding back. Denver overtook Minneapolis-St. Paul this year in transit access, and Seattle is improving the connectivity of residents to jobs via transit.
Let’s quickly get over what divides us on transportation and focus on how we can more quickly and efficiently get people to more places. This will be the issue that either sees our region vault to the front of the pack nationally or causes us to languish behind. Let’s figure this out over the coming months and be ready to hit the ground running when the 2019 Legislature convenes.
Jonathan Weinhagen is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber (mplschamber.com).