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Transportation is a problem as Medina prepares to grow

  • Article by: Emma Nelson
  • Star Tribune
  • June 17, 2014 - 11:52 AM

Elizabeth Weir was appointed to Medina’s planning commission in 1997 with a platform she called “slow growth” — putting the brakes on development in the west metro city and preserving its natural resources.

But Weir, now the city’s mayor, wasn’t able to maintain that position for long.

The Metropolitan Council’s long-term strategic plan has projected that Medina will add about 4,000 people by 2040, nearly doubling its 2012 population of about 5,000.

Weir and other city officials are trying to prepare for a wave of new residents, many of them commuters — with no mass transit and already crowded roads, particularly on the area’s main thoroughfare, Hwy. 55.

“I have spoken to the Metropolitan Council about the seeming disconnect between population projections and lack of transportation and the answer is, ‘There’s no funding for transportation,’ ” Weir said. “But the people are coming regardless, and we have to sort of field that as best we can.”

The three major arteries serving Medina — Hwy. 55 and County Roads 101 and 116 — are feeling the crunch from recent development in Medina and nearby communities. For commuters, this means major rush-hour backups. Lorie Cousineau estimated that the average rush-hour commute has doubled over the 15 years she’s lived in Medina. “It’s a pretty tough system to get through,” she said. “It’s just packed,” she said. “It’s crowded.”

But plans to revamp Hwy. 55 that have been supported by Medina and neighboring communities haven’t gained much traction. State and federal funds allocated in the early 2000s were used for small projects along the corridor, but a larger plan to add lanes ended up on the back burner. Now, the initial funds are mostly gone.

Marvin Johnson, who chairs the Hwy. 55 corridor coalition — a group of government officials that oversees plans for improving the corridor — said that the vision for the highway is still intact, and that the coalition will continue to meet. “We’ll just be operating on a shoestring,” he said.

More than half of the 121 Medina residents who responded to a survey this year were interesting in having a park-and-ride along Hwy. 55, with bus service to downtown Minneapolis. Still, it wasn’t enough to go through with the idea — mainly, Weir said, because respondents were going in too many directions for the route to be effective.

For Medina commuters who rely on Hwy. 55, there aren’t many alternatives to driving. The city does not have a lot of options for pedestrians and bicyclists, and there’s no easy access to mass transit.

Mike Greco, program manager for the Resilient Communities Project, which connects cities with University of Minnesota resources, said communities in Medina’s position face a Catch-22: They can’t make the case for infrastructure development if they have only low-density development, but to have more development, they need the infrastructure in place.

Growth goal reduced

In the same 30-year period when Medina is expected to add 4,000 people, nearby Wayzata is projected to add 1,200. Maple Grove and Plymouth — larger communities bordering Medina — are expected to add about 23,000 and 17,000 people, respectively.

For Wayzata, Maple Grove and Plymouth, these increases will fall between from about 25 to 40 percent. For Medina, the population jump would be 84 percent.

Initially, the Met Council’s goal for Medina was even higher — 11,000 people total by 2030 — but Weir asked for a reduction in light of the city’s infrastructure challenges.

With that reduction, the city is now able to step back and re-evaluate how it’ll manage the change, said city planner Dusty Finke.

“It is a significant reduction; it does offer great opportunity for the city,” he said. “Now, that being said, it still is significant growth for a community of our size.”

Seeking a balance

Cousineau, who is the mother of two teenage daughters, said she moved to Medina for its spaciousness. In her neighborhood, trees are abundant and houses often sit on a full acre. “It just seemed like a great place for kids,” she said. But as the community develops and grows, she said, she’s hoping for a balance between growth and the area’s rural feel.

Minnetonka has experienced similar growing pains during the past few decades, Greco said. It’s possible to grow while maintaining character — it’s just a matter of deciding which areas to develop, he said. In communities with a lot of green space, there’s sometimes a tendency to develop open space without a lot of careful planning.

“For better or worse, it’s a problem most suburban-edge communities are dealing with,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s up to individual cities to decide how they’re going to strike that balance, Greco said.

“I don’t read [the Met Council’s growth goals] as prescribing the way that communities develop, so much as articulating certain goals and certain thresholds that communities need to meet to make regional systems efficient,” he said.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509

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