The era of major new highway expansion is coming to an end, and the era of transit and tinkering is upon us.

That seemed to be the message Thursday when top officials of the Pawlenty administration met with elected officials and transportation planners from across the metro area.

"In general, the highway system we have today is essentially what we will have going forward," the Metropolitan Council's top transportation staffer, Arlene McCarthy, told a workshop at the University of Minnesota. "We need to wring every little bit of capacity from the infrastructure we have."

No one found the message more unsettling than officials from Scott and Carver counties, two places expecting major growth and counting on new highways to go with it.

"Most future growth is going to be outside the [Interstate 694-494] beltway," Scott County commissioner Jon Ulrich said. "I'm concerned that this 'low-cost, high-benefit' approach is all going to be applied inside the beltway."

Lyndon Robjent, highway engineer in Carver County, agreed.

"As we add a million people in 20 years, I guess let's not lose sight of those counties outside the ring, because that's where the majority of that growth will happen," he told McCarthy and her counterparts from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The daylong session was billed as the first outreach to local officials as part of a Metropolitan Highway System Investment Study, deciding what use to make of limited funds for transportation in coming years.

The message was simple: We can't afford to do things the old way. An aging society will soon start sucking massive sums of money from the federal government through Social Security and Medicare, leaving little for other uses. And most of the state's money needs to be spent fixing a decrepit system of bridges and roads.

The role models, speakers said, are cities such as London and Stockholm, which have made transit more attractive while finding ways to discourage driving, especially in the most congested places at the most congested times.

A map shown to participants showed bus shoulders being added both to Hwy. 169 through Shakopee and to Interstate 35W through Burnsville and Lakeville. Lanes that let people pay extra to escape congestion, such as the new one on I-35W, are likely to be created throughout the metro area, officials said.

Scott County officials have sensed the direction in which things have been moving and listed their concerns about this very study as the first item on their list of legislative priorities for the upcoming session.

David Peterson • 952-882-9023