Growing Minneapolis: The value of transit

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2013 - 5:21 PM

Editorial: All kind of wheels, from buses to light rail to streetcars, are needed to meet the population’s needs.

The growth is great news. But it brings up essential questions for a city that by 2040 will be the hub of a region that will add 31 percent more residents, 41 percent more households and 37 percent more jobs.

From projections a decade ago, the shifts are striking. Then, 30 percent of growth was predicted to occur in the metro’s “developed area” (central cities and suburbs). Now it’s 55 percent. Conversely, the amount of growth in “developing suburbs” declined from 60 percent to 36 percent. (“Rural areas” went from 10 percent to 9 percent.)

To be sure, the less-developed areas are still growing: Despite the surge toward Minneapolis, St. Paul and inner-ring suburbs, the counties with the highest projected household growth rates remain Carver (up 76 percent by 2040) and Scott (up 65 percent).

So with nearly the entire metro area expecting robust growth, it’s well past time to discard the distractions of city vs. suburb vs. exurb. Instead the focus should be on how to grow smartly, in order to retain the very qualities that will lead so many to choose to live here in the first place.

First, there should be agreement that the already clogged roads cannot accommodate such a surge in growth without significant investments in transit.

So the next mayor of Minneapolis needs to build. But build what?

Political consensus, first and foremost, because it’s essential to build transit infrastructure.

Specifically, the mayor and other metro leaders need to build legislative consensus to pass a plan similar to the one championed by Gov. Mark Dayton last legislative session. His bold proposal to fund multimodal transit recognized that taking action on transit is an economic necessity — not a “new urbanism” luxury — in order to efficiently connect the metro’s growing population to jobs.

Dayton’s plan would have mostly taken state funding out of the equation and replaced it with a sales tax imposed on the seven counties that would most directly benefit. This should have been highly attractive to nonmetro legislators. Instead, they derailed the transit plan out of fears that their legitimate needs on road and bridges would have been ignored.

This unfortunate stalemate must be fixed in the 2014 session. The new Minneapolis mayor, and leaders statewide, must work to convince key lawmakers that transit is a probusiness, progrowth proposition.

Assuming a revised version of Dayton’s plan passes, the next mayor needs to prioritize projects. More consensus building will be required here, too, because for the most part the Met Council, not the city, builds and runs transit systems. But that doesn’t mean that the next mayor won’t be highly influential in these decisions.

Coalition-building will be more effective if the new mayor focuses on moving people, especially to jobs. Most of this focus will be on the commute in and out of a burgeoning downtown. But just as important, inner-city residents need better access to job-rich suburbs.

The mayor should also champion transit that spurs development, as it has done in competing cities like Denver and Portland. That development should reflect rapidly shifting demographic trends that suggest where, and how, people will want to live in the next 30 years will be directly related to transit.

Household size, in terms of residents and square footage, is likely to be smaller. No doubt teardowns and undeveloped land will be replaced by big houses in some suburbs and exurbs. But the demographic destiny of Minneapolis, and of many inner-ring suburbs, will be significantly determined by the so-called “silver tsunami.”

Residents over the age of 65 will increase by 150 percent by 2040. Most will be empty nesters, many will be single and fewer will drive. They will need transit.

Their grandchildren, meanwhile, who came of age in the Great Recession, are expected to choose housing for living, not investing. More than their parents’ generation, they will choose walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. There will also be more immigrants, who historically have settled in and around cities.

These three groups, as well as other city residents, need more and better transit. To the degree that the mayor has influence, we offer these priorities:

• Trains. Every candidate should insist that the Met Council continue to seek better freight-rail reroute options for the proposed 15-mile Southwest Corridor light-rail transit line, which would run from Minneapolis through portions of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. But criticizing the process won’t be enough. Finding a solution that can get municipal consent is essential. Otherwise, this vital line is unlikely to ever qualify for 50 percent federal funding.

Considering the controversy and the anticipation over next year’s opening of the Central Corridor line, it may seem that LRT will be at the heart of transit development — and debate — for years to come. It won’t. In fact, it’s likely that even if Southwest is joined by the proposed 13-mile Bottineau light-rail line, which would run from Minneapolis through portions of Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park, the number of light-rail lines will stop at four.

That’s because Fifth Street will be at capacity. Adding an additional line would require adding another downtown route, which seems unlikely.

And despite the success of the Hiawatha line, and the anticipated acceptance of Central Corridor, the problems plaguing Southwest show how developing a rail system that depends on brokering with freight rail lines is too problematic. Similarly, shared tracks mean that the Northstar commuter rail line has limited frequency. This not only has resulted in Northstar not reaching its potential, but has cooled interest in other lines. Transit should be built on roads where municipalities have the right of way.

Freight-rail issues, the size and scale of LRT trains, as well as the construction controversies mean that the next mayor should seek other alternatives.

• Streetcars. No, streetcars aren’t nostalgic “trolleys” — they’re a modern mode of transit that has had significant impact in redeveloping portions of Portland and other cities. But it isn’t just those progressive places that are embracing streetcars. Conservative cities like Salt Lake City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Charlotte and Cincinnati, among others, are way ahead of Minneapolis and have received federal grants to develop streetcars.

Why the interest? Because streetcars simultaneously move, and root, people. They are not designed as rapid transit, but operate more like inner-city bus lines. Yet their permanence encourages business and residential development. What’s happening along Central Corridor is a good example of transit-spurred development. The Met Council estimates that $1.7 billion in development is finished or is being built along the line.

Streetcars, at 67 feet, are shorter than light-rail cars (94 feet each, with three trains often connected). They’re about the same length as an articulated bus (60 feet). So while they can hold many people, they don’t dominate the road the way LRT trains do. With more and wider doors, a lower ride and an electric operation, they can be ideal for inner-core neighborhoods.

As many as seven routes have been recommended for a network in Minneapolis. Last week, a City Council panel approved a 3.4-mile, $200 million line that would run up Nicollet Avenue, starting at Lake Street, through downtown and into northeast Minneapolis. It’s likely to be successful. Expect a call, or even a clamor, for more lines.

• Buses. Rail may be flashier, but the city can’t miss the bus. Many Minneapolitans sure don’t: 85 percent of all transit trips in the city are by bus, and 58.4 percent of all metro bus boardings and exits are within city limits. Nearly all city residents are within a quarter mile of one of 2,700 transit stops in the city.

Even more will ride once the Interstate 35W South Bus Rapid Transit line begins in 2019. It will join the already-existing BRT line on Cedar Avenue.

More BRT lines should be built. Needed now downtown are east-west bus-only lanes that are equivalent to the improvements on Marquette and Second Avenues. BRT will be far less effective if it gets caught in downtown traffic once it zips past cars on clogged interstates.

And strong consideration must given to building more high-occupancy-toll lanes, which encourage carpooling, raise revenue for those willing to pay to drive solo and can create high-speed corridors for BRT. Far from their original “Lexus lane” image, these are essential tools to tackle traffic.

The other key development would be so-called “rapid bus” service within the city. These buses would be faster and more reliable by reducing boarding time and time spent at stoplights, among other enhancements. The Met Council has identified eight potential routes in Minneapolis for this relatively inexpensive option. What’s needed is investment — and visionary leaders.

• Walking and biking. As with streetcars, it’s just as important to define the biking boom by what it isn’t — elitist or inconsequential. More than 11 percent of Minneapolitans biked or walked to work in 2012, second only to Portland. The high numbers have numerous benefits, not only for those getting fitter and saving money, but in reducing congestion and pollution for all.

Minneapolis has an unusual number of nonmotorized paths along lakes, the river and near rail lines. But with the opening of the Dinkytown Greenway this summer, most have been developed. So more on-street cycling will be needed to increase bike commuting.

• Safety. Cyclists and motorists must coexist more safely. Crash data suggest about half of accidents can be attributed to drivers and half to cyclists. Better road markings are needed and, where possible, safety barriers separating bikes from cars should be added. Personal security is a key issue, too. Cyclists and transit riders should not travel in fear. More police are needed on bike paths and at transit stops.

• Road maintenance. Every mode of transit depends on road maintenance. Good strides were made under Mayor R.T. Rybak, but much more can be done, especially on routes commonly shared by motorists and cyclists.

• • •

Minneapolis is poised for healthy growth. The projected increases in population and employment could be even greater — and our vaunted quality of life maintained — if the necessary investments are made.

If not, we risk not being a cold Omaha, but a cold Atlanta — growing, but choked with maddening traffic.

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An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+

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  • Under a proposal portrayed in this illustration, streetcars would stop about every two blocks along Nicollet Avenue and into northeast Minneapolis.

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