After witnessing the relentless attacks on the Metropolitan Council by Republican politicians — the latest being state Rep. Linda Runbeck (“Efforts to reform the Met Council must continue,” editorial counterpoint, Aug. 1) — you’d never guess that the legislators and governor who created the council 50 years ago were ... Republicans.
Of course, those Republicans were a far different breed. They didn’t automatically see government as the problem. They saw it as the solution to some very real problems that could not be solved by the private sector or by any one city or county.
At the time, backyard septic systems in many suburban communities were failing, and inadequately treated sewage was being dumped into regional waterways. The region’s privately owned bus company was on the verge of collapse. And unrestrained development was threatening vital natural areas better suited for preservation as parks and open space.
Republican legislators (they were called “Conservatives” then) and Republican Gov. Harold LeVander led the way in creating a regional body to help ensure the “orderly and economical” development of the region and to address problems that required regional cooperation.
Over the last 50 years, the Met Council and its regional partners have:
• Developed a modern system of regional wastewater treatment plants and interceptors that regularly wins national awards for environmental excellence while maintaining rates 40 percent below our peer regions.
• Dramatically improved the region’s transit system, replacing its aging fleet with modern, air-conditioned buses, installing hundreds of bus shelters, and opening its first light-rail and bus rapid transit lines.
• Developed a 55,000-acre regional parks system, with 54 parks and 350 miles of trails, that provides boundless opportunities for active recreation while preserving vital natural areas for future generations.
The council also has worked cooperatively with local officials throughout the metro area to help plan for orderly growth and ensure the efficient use of regional roads, sewers and other expensive infrastructure.
It is instructive that members of Metro Cities, an organization of 91 metro municipalities, have opposed the efforts of Runbeck and some of her colleagues to transform the Met Council into an unwieldy body of 27 local elected officials chosen by local governing bodies.
Councils of government (COGs) have not worked in other metro areas. They are a prescription for partisan and parochial gridlock, as we have seen demonstrated locally.
The Counties Transit Improvement Board, which was created in 2008 to help fund transit capital improvements, recently was dissolved because the members, representing five metro counties, couldn’t work together. Now they will go their separate ways, likely leading to further parochialism and inefficiency.
The counties already wield far too much power in our system of transit planning and funding.
They have helped produce wasteful investments such as:
• The $320 million Northstar commuter-rail line, which opened in 2008 but has yet to achieve its projected first-year ridership. And it is requiring an operating subsidy per rider of a whopping $17.76 per one-way ride.
• The $243 million purchase and renovation of St. Paul’s Union Depot, which serves just two trains a day as well as a few intercity and casino buses. It hardly has lived up to the promises of it being a multimode transportation hub and “a new platform for growth” in downtown St. Paul.
• On a smaller scale, the $6.2 million Newport transit station, once envisioned as a stop for future commuter rail or bus rapid transit service. The heated station and 150-car park-and-ride lot serve no more than a dozen bus riders per day.
A 19-member Citizens League task force, on which I served, studied the COG proposal supported by Runbeck and rejected it. Instead, we recommended that the current nominations process for the Met Council be changed to give local officials a greater voice in the screening of members appointed by the governor. And we urged that the four-year terms of council members be staggered to provide for greater continuity.
It is misleading for Runbeck to suggest that the Met Council is levying “billions in taxes.” Of its $1.017 billion operating budget for 2017, just 8 percent comes from property taxes. It relies primarily on funding from the state, the federal government and user fees.
Nor is it accurate to suggest that the council is totally “unaccountable.” It is accountable to both the governor who appoints its members and multiple committees of the Legislature, which regularly review its budget and major activities. Moreover, it operates within the strictures of state law.
While the Met Council is viewed as a national model for regional planning and cooperation, it long has served as a convenient whipping boy for some on both the left and the right. If legislators truly wanted to make it “more accountable,” they would provide for the direct election of its members.
Steven Dornfeld is a retired journalist and former public affairs director of the Metropolitan Council.