Counterpoint: Two views of transit — all of the above or nothing at all

  • Article by: PETER WAGENIUS and KEVIN REICH
  • Updated: January 28, 2014 - 6:36 PM

Minneapolis is leading the way, and Republicans would do well to heed their own advice.

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Among other transit plans, Minneapolis seeks to run streetcars on a 3.4-mile-line along Nicollet and Central Avenues.

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A recent commentary by state Rep. Linda Runbeck and state Sen. David Osmek (“Why the Legislature should put brakes on streetcar dreams,” Jan. 18) would have you believe that they support bus rapid transit (BRT), while Minneapolis only wants streetcars. The opposite is true. Minneapolis is working hard on multiple transit modes. Runbeck’s and Osmek’s support for transit, however, is strictly rhetorical.

Their claims may seem familiar. Back in the 1990s, conservatives talked at length about BRT as an alternative to light-rail transit (LRT). Two things changed. First, the Republican Party moved hard to the right. Second, nonpartisan local officials, independents and Democrats embraced BRT.

Most Republican legislators then abandoned their own idea. Some still talked about BRT. But when it came time to actually raise revenue to pay for it, they were not interested.

Remember the record: In 2008, after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, the Legislature voted to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto and pass a slimmed-down transportation bill. Only six Republican representatives voted to fund transportation. Many roads and bridges have been repaired because of that brave vote.

Fortunately, progress on BRT hadn’t stopped entirely. In 2007, with strong support from Minneapolis, our region won a $134 million grant from the Bush administration to begin bringing BRT to I-35W. As part of that, Marquette and 2nd Avenues downtown were rebuilt with improved bus stops and double-wide transit lanes, improving speed and reliability.

More is needed on 35W, but plans await funding. Smaller forms of BRT, like “enhanced bus” service on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, are also in development. In Minneapolis, we hope to follow St. Paul with similar improvements on Routes No. 5 and 19, which currently are served by slow buses. Bottom line: We love BRT and “enhanced bus” service. These are great ways to move people from point A to point B.

But effective transportation has always been about more than just moving people from A to B. It’s an economic catalyst. New roads and highways funded by huge subsidies (well beyond the gas tax) created economic growth in the suburbs.

Rail transit has a far better record than buses as a catalyst for jobs and economic development. Light rail’s Green Line is opening on June 14. Contrary to claims by Runbeck and Osmek, there already has been a huge surge of private investment along the line. People are moving to be near rail because they know they can count on the rails still being there in years to come.

That’s one of the reasons Minneapolis supports building modern streetcars — a smaller, less expensive form of light rail. Streetcars don’t require their own lane and can operate in mixed traffic, with cars driving over the tracks. This allows the benefits of LRT without the removal of on-street parking, as with the Green Line on University Avenue. On 95 percent of transit corridors, buses alone could do a great job. But on a few key corridors, we must do better.

Minneapolis wants to grow its population, not just move people through the city. If we can accommodate more people in the core cities, the region can avoid the expense of new roads, new water and sewer systems, and the costly additional congestion that comes with sprawl.

Minneapolis is the economic engine of this region. But there are no new freeways coming downtown, and streets downtown can’t be widened. After the Green Line, only two more light-rail lines are coming downtown. Within these limits, streetcars are a rational response to make the most of the lanes that already exist.

Every week, we interact with Republican leaders in the business community and in suburban cities who support raising revenue to build a modern transit system. Unlike Republican legislators, they know that no form of transportation is free, but that falling further behind competitor regions like Dallas and Denver is the most expensive choice of all.

Perhaps Runbeck and Osmek could prove us wrong: Instead of pushing draconian cuts in transit funding as Runbeck did, they could author a bill that raises new revenue for a BRT-only, no-rail transit system. Then we could have a real debate. But they haven’t. Given the choice between funding any form of transit and doing nothing, they choose to do nothing.

 

Peter Wagenius is policy director for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. Kevin Reich is a member of the Minneapolis City Council who chairs the transportation committee.

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