The appointment of new Metropolitan Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff is indeed a welcomed move. After years of the council being led by former Chair Adam Duininck — appointed despite no experience in regional planning, and whose previous job was raising millions of dollars to fund liberal Democratic campaign organizations — it’s encouraging to see someone with Tchourumoff’s experience finally take the helm.
However, I couldn’t disagree more with the July 3 editorial that described calls to reform the Met Council as “counterproductive.” While criticisms called out “Republicans in the Legislature,” the fact is that efforts to rein in the expansive powers of this unaccountable organization are indeed bipartisan. Several reform proposals last session enjoyed bipartisan support from lawmakers — even in deep-blue districts.
Star Tribune editorial writers may swoon at the current structure that allows the organization to override concerns of local elected officials, levy billions in taxes without the potential for electoral backlash by pesky citizens and move full steam ahead with an expensive vision for billion-dollar rail lines to every corner of the metro area, but legislators of both parties feel quite differently.
As the chair of the House Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee, I will continue bipartisan efforts to make the Met Council accountable to those it serves. The Star Tribune Editorial Board should thoughtfully examine calls for reform rather than urging legislators to simply move on.
We need to continue the bipartisan efforts to give Minnesotans a say in the policies that affect them. Proposals to change the board’s makeup include putting elected officials on the board, allowing communities in each Met Council district to approve a candidate or allowing communities to elect members directly.
The current system that allowed Gov. Mark Dayton to stack the board with liberal activists and union bosses is not responsive to the public nor in keeping with Minnesota’s tradition of open and accountable government.
In transportation, for example, the council should update its policy plans more frequently to inform citizens of its transportation efforts moving forward. The next plan should refocus the council’s priorities on congestion relief, buses over rail and increased ridership to boost farebox recovery.
A recent study showed that Twin Cities ridership has declined from 10 percent in 1980 to just 6.1 percent in 2015. The only way to improve access to transit is to stop building expensive stationary rail lines and to prioritize added bus service that can reach more riders and move people more quickly at a lower cost. The planning process should be done with significant input from the public, local officials and lawmakers.
Right now, the Met Council essentially operates in obscurity, allowed to develop, plan and move forward with far-reaching controversial projects with little — if any — public input. Decisions oftentimes are made internally, then presented at meaningless “public meetings” that rarely alter the final outcome. Once decisions are made by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, there is little that local officials or citizens can do to stop them. Communities that want common-sense exemptions from the Met Council’s dramatic overreach are forced to go to the Legislature, which had to pass multiple tweaks to prevent communities as far south as Cannon Falls from becoming tangled in the council’s web. Is this how a planning organization should operate?
By the same token, the Met Council’s Thrive MSP 2040 regional plan should be made advisory-only for local governments. These requirements push communities to adopt and accept unreasonably high population-growth targets, even if they are opposed locally. It requires dramatic changes to housing policy, transit planning and other decisions that ultimately should rest with local elected officials. Minnesotans elect mayors, city council members and county commissioners — they are accountable to voters and should have the final say in the future of their communities.
Finally, an issue that the public is largely united on but seems to fall on deaf ears inside the confines of the Met Council: farebox recovery. Minnesotans of all political stripes agree that our transit system should do what it can to ensure that users are paying their fair share.
Disturbingly, light-rail lines were built in a way that allows passengers to walk onto the train without a ticket, requiring Minnesotans to pick up millions in operating losses each year. The new, highly touted A-line bus rapid transit has brought this honor system to bus transit as well. It’s a trend that should not continue.
These are just some of the many examples where the Met Council needs improvement. While I appreciate the Editorial Board’s suggestion that we should simply move along, I respectfully but strongly disagree, and will continue to pursue the reforms that citizens of our metro region deserve.
Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, is a member of the Minnesota House.