The Met Council: A master of imposition

  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 3:21 PM

Its 30-year plan would control how you live and how you get around.

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Met Council Chair Susan Haigh

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Do you like the way you live now? Well, the folks at the Metropolitan Council don’t. In their view, far too many of us live in single-family homes when we should be content with high-density apartments. Far too many of us get to work and leisure activities in our cars when we should be taking public transit, biking or walking.

The Met Council intends to change that in its 30-year plan for the seven-county metro area: “Thrive MSP 2040,” due out in 2014.

Some of us, of course, prefer to live in a condo above a coffee shop on a transit line. But the rest of us likely won’t enjoy lugging rock salt home on the bus, getting the kids to soccer practice on the light rail or pedaling to the dentist on our bikes. Nevertheless, the council has announced that “transit-oriented development” (TOD) will be the guiding principle for development in the metro area for the next 30 years. In its 84-page “TOD Strategic Action Plan,” released in June, it held up Portland and San Francisco as enlightened places we should emulate.

TOD will be an “enormous undertaking,” the council acknowledged. No kidding. To remake our metro area around transit, the council will do all it can to steer new jobs, homes and economic development in our region to areas within “easy walking distance” (one-half mile) of major transit stops — primarily in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs. In these favored places, tax dollars (mostly from people who live elsewhere) will be lavished on high-density housing, bike and pedestrian amenities, and subsidized retail shops.

The transportation needs of the rest of the metro area will take a back seat. The Met Council (a champion of “equity” in other contexts) declares it will give funding priority to TOD projects in “several key locations,” even though this results in “geographic inequity.” We can expect money to improve and expand major regional highways and bridges to shrink, congestion to grow and traffic safety to suffer.

Many suburbs will also likely pay an economic price, as the Met Council distorts the market with large tax subsidies designed to lure jobs and investment to high-density areas. The council forecasts that, by 2040, the population of Minneapolis and St. Paul will grow 24 percent and jobs there will grow a whopping 47 percent, while suburban growth on both measures will parallel each other. Such core city growth is strongly counter to historic trends both locally and nationally and seems unlikely to occur, despite TOD policies that attempt to engineer it.

Advocates claim that light rail and TOD will attract impressive new economic investment. But research indicates that TOD generally just redistributes investment that have would occurred elsewhere — usually from suburbs to downtown. It’s no surprise that downtown property owners tend to strongly support rail transit projects.

What is TOD’s track record in Portland, the nirvana of TOD enthusiasts? Portland has poured huge sums into light rail, streetcars, and developments around transit stations. Now its streets are crumbling, and it can’t afford to repave them until at least 2017.

Meanwhile, transit’s ridership share for citywide commuting has fallen from 15 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2013. Portland has had to cut bus service, used disproportionately by low-income residents, to pay for light rail for well-heeled suburbanites.

In Portland’s much-ballyhooed “mixed use” TOD developments, many retail shops — designed with insufficient parking — are vacant. (“Limited, managed parking” is one of the “six principles” of TOD.) Supposedly successful projects like the Pearl District require unsustainable government subsidies.

We can see where transit-oriented development may lead by looking to San Francisco, which recently adopted a TOD-focused regional plan.

Over the next 25 years, “Plan Bay Area” will require almost 80 percent of new residences and 63 percent of new jobs in the nine-county area to be located in about 200 “Priority Development Areas” — small, hyper-dense areas along transit corridors. Together, these PDAs cover just 5 percent of the region’s surface area. New suburbs will be barred.

Plan Bay Area mandates that the 30 percent population growth it predicts be funneled into already urbanized areas. As a result, up to 28 percent of neighborhoods and business districts may have to be redeveloped to higher densities, resulting in many more apartments and far fewer single-family homes. Some property owners and savvy developers will reap windfalls, while middle- and lower-income families and young people will lose out.

The libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation has filed suit to halt Plan Bay Area. The foundation has labeled TOD a “sardine strategy for people, housing and jobs” designed to “micromanage people’s lifestyle choices.”

Speak up now, metro-area residents, or prepare for the “sardine” future of urban planners’ dreams.

 

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.

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