Met Council's regional plan changes for the better

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 21, 2013 - 4:44 PM

‘Thrive MSP 2040’ highlights closing gaps, growing the economy.

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Rush hour traffic on 169 looking south towards the Bloomington Ferry Bridge. Scott County is horrified, Dakota less so, by the new Met Council transportation plan. It calls for essentially nothing new by way of highway expansion for a county suffering from severe rush hour congestion getting over the Minnesota River bridge to job-heavy 494 corridor and downtown.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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A sneak preview of the Metropolitan Council’s next regional plan, “Thrive MSP 2040,” appears — even as a rough draft — to break important new ground in describing and addressing the Twin Cities’ most vexing problems in the decades ahead.

The council updates the regional plan every decade or so to keep pace with demographic trends and changing conditions. And this council, appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011, seems especially eager to shed traditional discussions about transportation and land development and take a wider view. Here are the highlights:

• For the first time, the plan emphasizes the competitive realities facing every major U.S. city. A global economy that sorts winners and losers has made regional planning not just the smart thing to do but a necessary exercise for any city hoping to prosper. Indeed, prosperity emerges as this plan’s central purpose and provides an answer to a question that, oddly, the metro plan has never asked: Planning for what? This marriage of metro planning to the region’s economic development efforts — opposed by past councils — is long overdue.

• This is the first regional plan to acknowledge that Minneapolis-St. Paul won’t achieve the growth and prosperity it seeks unless it reduces its extraordinary racial and ethnic disparities. “Solving this isn’t just about doing the right thing for the disadvantaged,” said Met Council Chair Susan Haigh. “It’s an economic imperative for all of us.”

Numbers help tell the story. By 2040, the black/Latino/Asian share of the metro population is expected to double to 43 percent. But to pull even with whites, the outcomes for people of color would have to improve dramatically: 169,000 more would have to be high school graduates; 151,000 more would have to be employed; 305,000 fewer would have to live in poverty, 228,000 more would have to be homeowners, and $32 billion would have to be added to their incomes.

• The council is similarly blunt in discussing changes forecast for the land development market. After decades of outward spread, the focus will shift toward the infilling of established communities, both at the metro core and in the suburbs. The reasons are many, most having to do with environment, climate change, energy conservation and economic efficiency.

But two points stand out: the preference of both younger and aging populations to live in more-active, less-isolated settings, and the precipitous decline in the number of households with children (down by half since the 1960s). The result of these demographic shifts is less demand for large, remote suburban homes and a return to the traditional town form that was popular in the first half of the 20th century: walkable streets and somewhat denser neighborhoods that combine residential, commercial and transportation choices. This is not the ideological plot that some conservatives imagine, but rather a shift in market preference.

• The story on transportation is similar. The gasoline tax can no longer support an aggressive expansion of the freeway system and, with development trending inward, the need for road expansion will diminish in any case. With revenues running more than $200 million behind needs over the next 10 years, the metro division of the Minnesota Department of Transportation will have little choice but to pivot toward maintaining the current road/bridge system while squeezing more capacity from existing freeways, largely by adding more high-occupancy/toll lanes.

As for transit, the obvious need is for a reliable revenue stream to finance a more predictable, cost-effective build-out of the system, as all of our rival cities have done. The plan promotes a balanced approach: transit (bus and rail) mainly in high-density corridors with auto reliance everywhere else.

More than past reports, “Thrive” offers an integrated approach to planning. It acknowledges that transportation, land development, economic competitiveness, climate change, the need to conserve water and open space and the need to address racial and social disparities are all part of a single ecology. Likewise, the plan promotes collaboration among various public, private and civic players to shape the region’s future. More than 200 public meetings and more than 2,000 public comments shaped the plan, with a special emphasis on comments from impoverished communities. Included is a system for measuring progress based on hard data, not ideological whim.

• • •

“Thrive MSP 2040” is not yet a polished document. The prose is awkward, the graphics minimal and some of the facts confusing. (The report confuses population statistics for the metro area with those of the Met Council’s seven-county jurisdiction, for example.) Specific chapters on transportation, wastewater and parks will be added beginning next year.

The plan will draw the usual criticism from those who see the council as heavy-handed, but the opposite is true. As in the past, this council seems unlikely to use its full authority over local decisions, preferring carrots over sticks. All in all, the “Thrive” document represents an impressive leap forward in coming to terms with the region’s toughest challenges.

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