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Thrive’s second major component is “transit-oriented development,” or TOD, which the Met Council describes as an “enormous undertaking.” The goal is to reduce automobile use by increasing density, funneling public dollars into transit, increasing congestion, limiting parking, and generally make driving more inconvenient and expensive.
Like housing densification, TOD drives up the cost of living. People come to a metro region for jobs. Research makes clear that a key to regional growth and prosperity is how many jobs they can access within a normal commute time of 30 minutes or so.
The Met Council’s obsession with rail transit is problematic in this respect. Rail transit is enormously expensive and heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Rail may make sense in a handful of older cities, like New York and Philadelphia, where a significant proportion of jobs are in the central business district. But in the Twin Cities, as in most regions, fewer than 10 percent of jobs (7 percent) are located in the principal downtown (Minneapolis), and even fewer (4 percent) in downtown St. Paul. The dispersion of jobs across metro areas is a strong historic trend.
In this situation, cars are by far the fastest and most convenient way to get to the vast majority of jobs here, and will remain so. Transit is not time-competitive with automobiles — transit’s average work trip travel time is at least 1.5 times that of driving alone. Thrive’s focus on transit-oriented development, which disfavors cars and favors rail transit, will reduce opportunity and sap prosperity.
In the Twin Cities region, the average employee can reach only 7 percent of jobs by transit within 45 minutes, according to the Brookings Institution. Drivers, on the other hand, get to their jobs in an average of about 25 minutes.
The Twin Cities is now the nation’s 16th-most-congested region. Congestion decreases productivity and increases freight costs. The Met Council’s densification policies will only make congestion worse, since traffic is heavier in denser areas.
Our region is projected to have just $52 million available annually from 2014 to 2022 for highway congestion relief. After 2022, even that funding will dry up. Yet the Met Council intends to spend at least $1.7 billion on the Southwest light rail project alone, with more rail transit to follow. That’s three times more on one rail project than will be spent in 10 years on highway congestion and bottleneck relief for the entire seven-county region.
Rail transit carries only about 0.2 percent of motorized passenger miles in the Twin Cities region. (Even in Portland, which has spent heavily on rail, it carries only 1.2 percent.) Rail costs about $90 million a mile to construct, while adding a highway lane to expand capacity costs just $10 million a mile. Despite this, the Met Council intends to pour a hugely disproportionate share of tax dollars into rail transit.
A transportation policy that so grossly privileges light rail over the personal mobility and freedom of the automobile — benefiting a tiny share of the population, a handful of large companies, and politically connected developers — is economically indefensible.
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The Met Council professes great concern about the economic plight of our region’s low-income households. Ironically, these households are likely to suffer most from its misguided policies.
The council deplores our region’s lack of “affordable housing.” Yet its drive for densification likely will significantly increase housing prices, which will harm low-income residents. Rents will rise, too. In Portland, for example, income-adjusted median gross rents in high-poverty areas rose more than 2.5 times the increase in the rest of the metro area during densification from 1999 to 2009.
The “gentrification” that accompanies transit-oriented development often disproportionately displaces low-income households, driving them from the urban core to more dispersed areas with less transit. Low-income families also suffer disproportionately when bus service must be cut to pay for light rail serving well-heeled suburbanites, as frequently occurs.
In the future, the metro areas that flourish will generally be those where opportunity can grow unburdened by counterproductive government regulation. The Twin Cities region has many assets — a relatively highly educated population, a strong work ethic and an enviable quality of life. But in an era of global competition, we can’t rest on our past. We have a very low rate of business formation and, in recent years, taxes as well as labor, property and energy costs have escalated substantially. And then there’s our frigid weather.
The Met Council’s new plan will add greatly to the challenges we face. If we want to thrive, Thrive MSP 2040 is the last way to do it.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.