A multibillion-dollar redo of Rochester promises to remake the city’s downtown while cementing the Mayo Clinic’s reputation as a world-class medical destination. But with all of the anticipated construction and growth comes a headache that most of the city’s commuters have so far avoided: traffic jams.
With tens of thousands of new jobs forecast for Rochester under the 20-year Destination Medical Center (DMC) plan, transportation planners have begun plotting strategies to get those workers to the office on time.
Far from being a down-the-list detail, transportation has emerged as a core problem to solve, the sooner the better.
“What we learned time and time again from other cities across the nation is that transit is No. 1 and it’s really critical to get it right on the front end,” said Lisa Clarke, who’s leading the DMC effort.
Two major studies are underway, one short-term and one long-term, to find transportation fixes for the city. Advocates for everything from elevated trams to bike paths have formed coalitions and begun lobbying. And anxious local residents last week packed what was supposed to be a casual neighborhood meeting to talk, of all things, transportation at a local brewpub.
“People are curious,” said Andy Masterpole, a local landscape architect and neighborhood organizer who hosted the discussion at Forager Brewing Company.
Most attending came to the realization that Rochester won’t have to undo its old transit system to make a new one: The city doesn’t have a true public transit system, said Masterpole, with a limited bus system geared mostly to getting people to work at Mayo in the morning.
Transit draws uncommon attention in Rochester these days, but the truth is that driving a car just about anyplace there works.
“There’s no congestion here,” said Masterpole. “You can get in your car and get anywhere you want in 10 or 15 minutes.”
The master plan
The downtown visions presented by the DMC planners so far show a more walkable, bikeable city, with fewer surface parking lots, wider sidewalks and better lighting. What’s harder to see is life with a surging population. The city has an estimated 111,000 people, but wide-ranging predictions have the population growing by tens of thousands by the 2030s.
The downtown draws 40,000 employees today, but in two decades another 25,000 to 30,000 people could be making that commute. Today about 75 percent of all commuters drive to work, but if all of the new employees did the same, it would mean gridlock, said Charlie Reiter, transportation planner for Rochester and Olmsted County. The solution can’t be more surface parking lots or parking ramps because there’s a limited amount of land downtown and the lots and ramps would interfere with the DMC’s goal of building an attractive city, Reiter said.
The vision taking shape calls for more parking at the fringe of the city, with shuttles carrying commuters downtown. A “downtown circulator” could be anything from a bus in its own traffic lane to a streetcar or elevated tram, Reiter said. Improved pedestrian and bicycle connections would help ease traffic flow.
“We don’t think it’s one or the other of these,” Reiter said. “We think it’s all of the above.”
The city last fall hired Minneapolis-based SRF Consulting on a five-year contract to handle infrastructure issues. This year’s goal is to conduct research on transportation patterns and figure out what’s needed long term. Recommendations could be two to three years off, said Reiter.
The city, meanwhile, has a three-to-five year plan to explore low-cost options to make the system more efficient. Transit planner Bryan Law, who works for the city-owned Rochester Public Transit, expects an updated version of the plan to be published this summer.
Frank Douma, assistant director of the state and local policy program at the U’s Humphrey Institute, said he was surprised at how detailed the DMC transportation plans got. The talk of downtown circulators and an expanded transit system made sense, he said.
“If they really want to be forward-looking, we’re hearing a lot about self-driving cars right now,” Douma said. “It’s something that you wouldn’t want to dismiss out of hand, but you probably wouldn’t want to make it the centerpiece of your plan, either.”
The Mayo Clinic spends $5 million annually on transportation for its employees, from running commuter buses from park-and-ride ramps to guaranteeing a ride home for an employee if a bus is missed or a car stalls.
The daily crush of workers overwhelms the 7,245 employee parking spots downtown, so Mayo long ago established lots on the edge of town and began bussing in workers. A seniority system determines who gets the best parking spots, said Doug Holtan, vice chairman of facilities at Mayo Clinic.
Rather than build more lots, Mayo wants to change people’s habits, said Holtan. “It has to be a game changer,” he said.
That kind of talk draws interest from Kelly Corbin, head of WeBikeRochester, a bicycle advocacy group that has pushed for more bike lanes, improved street infrastructure and education for motorists. Her group measured a threefold increase in bike commuters along one busy stretch of road between 2012 and 2014, but sees potential for more bicycle commuting.
And she’s cautiously optimistic about a portion of the DMC capital investment plan that calls for $14 million for a bike share program and a “city loop” bike trail that would tie into existing bike routes while creating a route around downtown.
DMC board member R.T. Rybak said that the solutions need to come quickly. His fear is that absent a solid transportation plan, the rapid growth connected with the DMC will mean more parking ramps.
Changing the habits of car commuters will be hard unless they feel they’re getting something in exchange for giving up downtown ramp parking, said Rybak, who added that a new system should either get them to work faster, or in a climate-controlled environment or with an appealing vehicle.
Tyrel Clark, mayor of Eyota, drives 20 minutes each morning to his technology job at Mayo. He could telecommute, but the drive is rarely a problem, he said.
“I drive in rush hour and there’s no rush hour on the highways,” he said, referring to Interstate 90 and Hwy. 52. That changes for drivers when they hit downtown, and Clark knows the problem is likely to get worse as DMC expands.
Talk of improving the commute has him looking at the rarely used freight rail line that runs through Eyota, he said. The Canadian Pacific line cuts through Rochester while running from Owatonna to Winona and points farther west and east.
“It would be cool if they figure out a way,” he said, adding that a reliable bus line is probably more likely.