The Metropolitan Council reaches its 50th anniversary this week, but don’t expect much public celebrating for an agency under siege.
Decades after state leaders created the unique regional entity to grapple with issues spanning the metro area’s 188 cities and towns — from long-term planning to sewer service — Republican legislators who bristle at its power have made reining it in a priority. Some would like to disband it altogether.
Supporters point to results from the Twin Cities’ experiment in regional governance, from cheap wastewater treatment to a reliable transit system and expansive regional parks. But even those seemingly straightforward missions can be fraught with tensions between local desires and regional needs that have made the council a controversial body over its history.
What kind of transit should we have, and who will pay for it? Where should sewer pipes foster the region’s outward growth? Should a council of 17 gubernatorial appointees require cities to accommodate affordable housing?
It’s attracted a wide array of opinions, sometimes from polar opposite perspectives.
“The Met Council did a pretty good job the first 20 years of its existence meeting its goals,” said Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota researcher and former DFL legislator who shaped the current structure of the Met Council. “And then it kind of came apart.”
Orfield is among the camp that would like to see the council flex its authority, especially in pushing for more affordable housing in the wealthy suburbs, clustering job centers, and dissuading development outside the sewer boundaries.
Former Met Council Member Annette Meeks, appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, pointed to a Met Council program authorized by the Legislature in the 1990s that awards millions of dollars a year in grants to cities that agree to set goals for affordable housing.
“Take a look at some of this stuff where they’ve expanded their mission beyond their core that they were started with,” Meeks said.
Others say the agency’s accomplishments are taken for granted.
“The major metro systems work better than they would” otherwise, said John Adams, a former U professor who studies cities. “We have a good transit system. We have a good parks system. We have a good waste control system.”
Suburbs were ascendant
Before the Met Council’s founding in 1967, ominous news stories detailed challenges arising as the Twin Cities suburbs took off: private bus service in peril, well water polluted by septic systems, suburbs asking for help with sewage, even a warning that the metro would face more sprawl than Los Angeles. Planners expected 4 million residents by the year 2000.
A Republican governor and Republican majorities in both houses created the Met Council to respond to what Gov. Harold Levander described as the problems of “an exploding urban age.” The most pressing problem, he said, would be controlling urban sprawl.
“They were going to try to manage all that growth so it wasn’t helter skelter,” said Robert Jorvig the council’s first executive director.
But the vision of those early years to focus the area’s growth around dense centers of shopping, offices, education and housing — akin to Southdale — and connected to each other by high-speed transit lines proved challenging.
A 2014 analysis by the nonprofit Smart Growth America places the Twin Cities 28th on a list of 52 of the largest metro areas nationwide, ranked from least to most sprawling based on a wide range of factors. Regions Twin Cities planners often use as benchmarks, Portland and Denver, ranked 14th and 16th.
David Lanegran, a geography professor at Macalester College, said he would give high grades to that early vision. Land was purchased for parks, wastewater treatment was consolidated, and there was a plan for mass transit. He can see elements of the denser clusters in today’s landscape, tied to the central core, in contrast to cities like Kansas City or St. Louis, which were less intentional in their growth.
“We’ve sprawled out more than we hoped we would, but we didn’t sprawl out as much as we were going to,” Lanegran said.
Urban planners elsewhere in the country view the Met Council as a national example rivaled only by Portland’s Metro planning agency in its powers as a regional government, said Kate Foster, a regional governance expert and president of the University of Maine at Farmington.
“For many years, many metropolitan regions have looked and said, ‘Well, if only we could do what they did in the Twin Cities,’ ” she said. “And [they] looked with some envy. There’s a sense of eminence, I think, to those models.”
An evolving mission
The Met Council’s $1 billion budget is funded by the motor vehicle sales tax, transit fares, wastewater charges and a variety of other sources. It employs about 4,400 people, the bulk of whom work in the transit system, and its regional sewer pipes span 600 miles, bringing wastewater from across the Twin Cities to eight treatment plants.
Its reach has expanded over the last half-century.
The law creating the Met Council in 1967 made it responsible for crafting a regional growth guide, studying how to form a regional wastewater system, and reviewing the plans of cities and other regional boards and commissions.
Subsequent actions by the Legislature gave it more control over the sewer and transit commissions, which became part of the council in 1994, and authority to plan and develop a regional parks system. In 1976, the Legislature required cities to regularly submit long-range plans to the council that must be consistent with the broader plans for the region.
Rep. Linda Runbeck, who chairs the Legislature’s transportation policy committee, said the Met Council is successful with “buses and flushes.” But she disagrees with the council’s broadening scope, such as mandating that regional parks systems spend a share of their state Legacy funding wooing people to parks.
“We didn’t anticipate that we’d have sort of this overlord getting down to that kind of prescriptive, finite level of prescribing social policy in the urban area,” Runbeck said.
Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said the council operates only within its authority under state law — and its priorities sometimes shift depending on who’s in the governor’s office. He believes the push to restructure the agency stems largely from concerns over transportation and transit plans and funding.
“The real issue here is whether we can continue to work together to solve things at a regional scale,” Duininck said, “Or whether the ideology of, ‘You go your own way and I’ll go my own way. You take care of yourself, I’ll take care of myself’ prevails.”