Growing Minneapolis: The costs of inaction

  • Article by: SCOTT DIBBLE and FRANK HORNSTEIN
  • Updated: September 28, 2013 - 4:59 PM

We risk stalling in this incredible moment and sliding down the list of ho-hum cities.

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Artwork, - " Minneapolis skyline" by paper artist Raju Lamichhane, of Hopkins, Minn.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Cities across the country are experiencing a population renaissance. Young people are opting for city life. People entering their golden years are looking for places to live where the things they want to do are nearby.

This change, a reverse from previous decades, is readily seen in Minneapolis even by casual observers. We are witnessing a rebound in home sales. Cranes are appearing in the skies all over the city, raising up condos and apartments.

As encouraging as this is, other cities are racing past Minneapolis in a fierce contest for the best and brightest young people looking to start their lives and careers.

Some Minneapolis neighborhoods continue to be literally isolated, physically and economically ­— the very neighborhoods filled with young people growing up right here who should be a part of that emerging workforce.

We risk stalling in this incredible moment and sliding down the list of ho-hum cities.

What kind of city will win this national and international competition? It is one filled with vibrant neighborhoods that almost anyone can picture themselves living in: well-kept, safe, walkable streets with inviting shops and restaurants filled with interesting people and things to buy. Galleries, theaters, places to hear music, and venues to watch or play sports are accessible. Well-paying jobs are relatively easy to get to.

There is a variety of housing, so that people have options in every corner of the city to suit their income and their changing circumstances. Neighbors know each other in this kind of place and involvement in civic affairs is high. Community gatherings and celebrations are plentiful. There is distinctive, attractive architecture and parks and natural areas are within reach. It is a place where one feels welcome and comfortable no matter one’s skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin or economic status.

What does this have to with transportation? Everything.

The neighborhoods and communities described above simply cannot exist without a diverse transportation modes and choices. Improving and expanding transit choices consists of building out a system of light-rail and commuter-rail corridors, more-frequent and faster local bus service, bike infrastructure and safe pedestrian walkways, and a new modern streetcar system.

Cities very similar to Minneapolis, such as Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver, are moving forward and creating the neighborhoods and transit systems so many Minnesotans are waiting for. And they’re realizing the payoff — significant growth in their core cities, new jobs, and attracting the best and brightest professionals from around the country.

In a Minnesota Public Radio “Daily Circuit” broadcast earlier this year, Melissa, phoning in from Minneapolis, said on air: “I moved here after graduating from college in St. Louis where I could get everywhere I needed to go via public transit. … I expected, moving to a progressive city, that I wouldn’t need to buy a car. But I have actually had to buy a car, and it’s a huge expense, and so now I’m also considering other options of where to live.”

Melissa’s sentiments are not unique. Many in the so-called Millennial generation first choose where to live based on their desire to build careers and start families in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with access to transit options.

The Itasca Project, a group of key regional CEOs concluded in a recent report, “Regional Transit System: Return on Investment Assessment,” that investing $4.4 billion in transit construction over the next 15 years will result in between $6.6 million and $10.1 billion in direct benefits, such as job growth and retention, reduction in travel times, safer roads, healthier air, and expanded housing and community development opportunities.

The benefits increase dramatically if construction is accelerated and development around transit stations are factored into the equation. The report adds that “increasingly talented millennial generation employees are seeking cities with good transit.” One report responder says it clearly, “Transit comes up in every human resources conversation with new employees.”

In addition to providing choices for Millennials, Minneapolis must also plan for the “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers looking at retirement. According to a 2011 study by the advocacy group, Transportation for America, “without travel options, seniors face isolation, a reduced quality of life and economic hardship.” According to TFA, nearly half of the population aged 65 to 79 of our region will have poor transit access in 2015. This alarming trend must be reversed.

We invest now or we pay later. Lacking the needed upfront investments, we pay out the back door. We pay in lost economic prosperity with the loss of mobile labor and entrepreneurial Minnesotans.

Gridlock and isolation keeps workers from getting to good-paying jobs. Goods and services cannot get to market efficiently. Runaway consumption of land demands even more-expensive infrastructure, chokes our region on its own air pollution and worsens climate change.

Minneapolis does not exist in isolation. As a country and as a state, we have swung and missed too many times now. In St. Paul, the Legislature and governor failed to pass into law a plan to build out transitways and create stable funding for local bus service in the metro region and did not add new revenue to improve crumbling roads and bridges across the state. Congress has done nothing in more than a decade.

In order for the Legislature and governor to responsibly move forward on transportation, key political players in the state — particularly the business community, labor unions, farm and commodity groups, companies that build road and transit infrastructure, and local governments — need to play a much more active role in pressing for transportation funding.

It was this kind of urban-rural, business-labor coalition that led to the historic override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto in 2008. That same coalition needs to build a movement-style campaign in Minnesota before the Legislature and governor will act on meaningful transportation funding in the coming session.

Strong metropolitan areas have strong urban core cities. And strong states have strong metros.

The Brookings Institution writes that metropolitan areas are “the heart of the American economy. They are also our hubs of research and innovation, our centers of human capital, and our gateways of trade and immigration. Metropolitan areas drive the economy, and American competitiveness depends on their vitality. More than ever, this is a national imperative as our global competitors move aggressively down this path — boosting exports, investing in innovation, scaling up clean technology …”

In order for Minneapolis to succeed, we need to catch up to our peer cities in the contest for the best and brightest young people looking to start their lives and careers and the businesses that follow.

We cannot afford to fall further behind, because it only costs us more. We must move forward together as a city, region and state to upgrade our transportation systems. Only then can Minneapolis create jobs and improve its quality of life, business climate and natural environment.

The time to act is now.

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Scott Dibble is a member of the Minnesota Senate. Frank Hornstein is a member of the House. Both are DFLers representing Minneapolis.

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