Commuters who miss the bus during rush hour on Rice Street in St. Paul used to wait half an hour for the next one. Now the Route 62 rolls up every 15 minutes.
Every two years, dozens of transportation projects compete for a slice of the region’s federal money. Route 62 had something special going for it to win $3.1 million in funding: The route travels through low-income and minority communities. The added service is one result of the Metropolitan Council’s promise to chip away at racial and economic disparities in the Twin Cities.
For some suburban lawmakers, the factors that vaulted Route 62 over a park-and-ride in Eden Prairie represent “social engineering” and a regional government run amok. They warned of it four years ago, the same year the council’s then-director declared a new chapter for the agency focused on ending racial disparities under the banner of “equity.”
“It’s not a fair playing field,” Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look said of the transportation change. “They’re creating special classes and saying because you’re a special class you get favoritism.”
Equity is now omnipresent in the council’s 30-year plans for the region, mentioned more than 230 times in the documents that shape spending on housing, parks, transportation systems and wastewater treatment.
But a Star Tribune review of the equity push found it has produced more suggestions than concrete changes to how the region operates.
The council has upgraded many bus shelters in poor neighborhoods and created a discount bus pass for low-income riders. It doled out $1 million in “equity grants,” and helped families with housing vouchers find homes in wealthier neighborhoods. Internally, it demanded departments improve their public outreach, educate their employees about racial equity and boost workforce diversity — which rose 5 percentage points since 2011.
Some of its most high-profile initiatives have faltered, however. A new equity advisory committee, created to be a council partner in decisionmaking, is in disarray, with its remaining members questioning their purpose. The Legislature slapped down the council’s attempt to get park agencies to spend more money attracting underserved populations.
Despite accounting for equity in the council’s distribution of federal transportation dollars, the measure proved pivotal for only six projects that won funding out of more than 100 awarded money since 2014. The Route 62 bus, and another south Minneapolis bus route, are the only two completed to date.
The council gave cities more specific affordable housing targets and asked what tools they would use to encourage that development. But those local housing plans aren’t due until the end of the year and have been ignored in the past.
“We have these plans, but there is no enforcement of the plans,” said Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing. “And there’s no real consequences if you don’t follow through on this.”
Met Council Member Gary Cunningham said the council has focused the region’s attention on the equity issue, but a number of policy changes have run into stiff resistance.
“People are feeling threatened by the fact that the demographics are changing,” Cunningham said. “And so you have folks that are acting out from that place of fear, and that place of insecurity and anxiety. And I do think that we can actually get to a better place if we start making some of these changes now — we will all be better off as a community.”
Handful of projects
The Metropolitan Council wields more power than almost any regional governing body in the country. It operates the seven-county metro area’s transit and wastewater systems, guides how cities use land, doles out grants to spur development and oversees the regional parks system.
The council’s members are appointed by the governor, giving the current council just eight months before a new governor could reshape the Met Council.
In 2014, the council and its Transportation Advisory Board, which helps allocate a massive pot of federal transportation money, gave extra points to projects based on their proximity and benefits for low-income, minority, youth, disabled or elderly communities. It also bolstered an affordable housing incentive.
Ultimately, the new equity measure accounted for about 3 percent of scoring for road and bridge projects — where the majority of the money goes — and up to 12 percent for transit projects. The extra points for equity have been crucial for funding a small number of transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects in the past four years.
Those boosted by the measure are the extra bus service on Route 62 and Route 2; a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Warner Road in St. Paul, a pedestrian bridge over Highway 252 in Brooklyn Center, improved bus shelters on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, and a bike trail underpass in Burnsville.
Met Council staff said that it cannot say for certain whether those projects would have been unfunded without the equity score, because projects are ranked on many other criteria that could have been reprioritized.
Yet the new measure remains controversial.
“The average taxpayer, they’re going to say … you should be looking at safety, congestion and is the infrastructure failing and does it need improvement,” said Rhonda Sivarajah, chair of the Anoka County Board, during a meeting last year with the new Met Council chair. “I don’t think that they would say racially concentrated areas of poverty or other criteria within transportation funding.”
Reforming the parks
After studying why communities of color use the regional parks less frequently, the council imposed new equity requirements on the 10 independent agencies that oversee the system. Yet its most forceful effort was shut down not long after it began.
The council made agencies spend an escalating percentage of the sales tax dollars they receive from the Legacy Amendment on “connecting people and the outdoors” — reaching 10 percent by 2022. This meant spending money on non-building projects to attract new parkgoers, and keep existing ones.
Agencies balked at the new restrictions on their funding. Minneapolis’ parks superintendent at the time, Jayne Miller, wrote to the council that the proposal would force them to redirect $300,000 a year on costs like fliers and advertising.
A year later, the Legislature reined in the council’s authority over the money, effectively nullifying the change.
“If people are interested in going to parks, they’ll go to parks,” said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, who chairs a committee focused on the council’s work. “It is an elite bunch of folks who have said, ‘Oh, well, you need to use the parks more, you’ll enjoy it.’ ”
Another requirement remains in place. Agencies seeking bonding dollars for park improvements have to explain which “demographic segments” the project will serve, with boxes to check for race, income, disability status, age and national origin.
For two-thirds of the projects in the latest round of funding, agencies checked all of the boxes or said the project was not aimed at any particular group. The questionnaire has not resulted in the council changing which projects get funded.
‘It was a one-way process’
To ensure a diverse group of citizens always had its ear, the council created an Equity Advisory Committee in 2015 to “engage constituents as full partners in decisionmaking that affects them.”
Two-and-a-half years later, its remaining members told the council’s chair that they signed up to help shape big decisions, but were instead deluged by months of presentations about how the council operates. It has 11 vacancies, partly due to terms expiring.
“It was a one-way process, where we got oriented to the Met Council but Met Council didn’t get anything … from our perspective,” committee member Ishmael Israel said at the meeting in April.
Nelima Sitati Munene, another committee member, said the council did not acknowledge the expertise of people on the committee.
“There was stuff going on and decisions being made and we were still stuck in this process mode,” Sitati Munene said. “And it was always like, ‘When are we going to get to weigh in on some critical decisions that are happening now?’”
Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff said she would like to conduct a review of the committee so it could be improved. Time is of the essence, with a new governor, and a new council, coming next year. “We don’t have nine months to do a review,” Tchourumoff said.
Internally, the council has been able to make broad changes, like a plan holding departments accountable for equity improvements. It has committed to changing its public feedback methods to reach a wider range of people and better include them in decisions. And its ranks are diversifying, such as the Metro Transit Police Department’s 61 officers of color, up from 13 in 2011.
“It’s not just about the people that you hire,” said Susan Haigh, the council’s former chair who presided over its early equity strategy. “It’s about how you allocate resources, how you engage people in decisionmaking. It’s much more holistic. It should change the way in which we behave and act.”
Not everyone agrees with the breadth of the council’s equity push. Former Council Chair Peter Bell, appointed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said he supports better outreach efforts but questions making spending decisions on the basis of race or ethnicity.
“It’s the camel’s nose under the tent,” Bell said. “It’s not a big deal now. And it’s not a huge reallocation of money. But when you start down this path it becomes a little bit of a slippery slope.”
He added that the public perceives more inequities in criminal justice and education, rather than parks and transit.
“So to have a major public institution that isn’t involved with the criminal justice system or education have that as their major achievement, I find odd,” Bell said.
“Why wouldn’t we think about how to make sure that the services that we’re looking at are inclusive, and are serving the communities that live in this region?” she asked.