Most members of the Metropolitan Council rarely use the public transportation system they are in charge of overseeing, based on transit pass usage and a Star Tribune survey of the 17-member body.
Met Council members receive a free transit pass as part of their appointments to the board. Information obtained through an open records request shows that 10 of those passes were never used in the past year. Five council members swiped their cards between 10 and 21 times, while just two registered more than 70 rides.
By comparison, a full year of two-way weekday commutes would rack up closer to 500 rides.
"We should ask whether members of the council have sufficient expertise about transit … to be managing a transit system. Do they understand the problems at a deep level?" said University of Minnesota professor David Levinson, who researches transportation systems and has written about the need for transit decisionmakers to commute on their own product.
The information is not entirely complete, since members occasionally flash their pass to a bus driver, board light rail without swiping or pay another way. The data provided by the Met Council showed pass usage, but did not connect a pass to a specific user. One newer member who commutes by bus frequently was not aware members were entitled to the pass. But interviews and e-mails with each member show that few incorporate public transit into their daily lives — if they use it at all.
Some Met Council members said they try to take a bus or light rail once or twice a month, while others reported very limited usage. Those who are not retired or working from home said they drive because their jobs require them to make frequent midday trips. Several also cited lower frequency service in their suburban locales as a major hurdle.
"I know that my colleagues, even those who may not be using transit themselves, are listening to and being responsive to constituents who are frustrated that there could be more and better transit service," Council Member Jennifer Munt said.
Senior staff at Metro Transit, who participate in a friendly transit usage competition, fared significantly better. The 33 staffers in the challenge have averaged 127 rides since January, with general manager Brian Lamb racking up 617 rides on the bus or light rail.
The Met Council is perhaps the most powerful unelected body in the state, and also the most scrutinized. Appointed by the governor, its part-time members oversee Metro Transit — a division of the Met Council — in addition to regional transportation planning, waste water and regional parks. They represent districts scattered across the metro area, stretching from Chaska to Mahtomedi and Ham Lake to Lakeville.
Met Council board members are not the only ones facing scrutiny for their ridership. Similar questions about how often transit board members use their own systems have arisen recently in other cities, including Chicago, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. A man's challenge in September to have Utah Transit Authority board members depend on transit for one week was largely ignored, but generated local headlines. Twenty years ago, San Francisco voters even passed a ballot measure urging their public officials to ride more.
'Can't take it for work'
"I certainly take the bus downtown when I go to the Twins game or something like that," said Council Member Gary Cunningham, who represents a wide swath of Minneapolis and is married to Mayor Betsy Hodges. "But I can't take it for work because I have to go to a lot of meetings."
Cunningham, who lives in south Minneapolis, recently left his job in St. Paul and now commutes to downtown Minneapolis. He likes to ride his bike when feasible. He noted, however, that he is intimately familiar with the bus system because he grew up using it. "We didn't have any money," Cunningham said. "What were you going to do?"
Council Member Ed Reynoso, political director for the Teamsters, said his card has 18 uses in the last year. His job requires a lot of travel, he said, but he recently took the new express bus service from his home in Ham Lake to gauge rider opinion.
"I don't rely on it to get me to and from work or to get me to specific places," said Reynoso, a member of the council's transportation committee. "I just used it to engage and talk to customers. And find out what they like, what they believe is working, what isn't working."
The two most frequent users of the pass were Jon Commers and Adam Duininck, who represent St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively. They registered 77 and 73 rides.
Commers said he does not think less frequent riders among his colleagues are less qualified to make transit decisions. But for him personally, "it gives me, I think, a useful perspective to bring to the work that I do shaping policy, and the work that I do specifically on the transportation committee."
A newer member, Marie McCarthy, said she regularly takes the express bus from her home in Blaine to her office in St. Paul when she does not have commitments after work. Appointed in December 2013, she was unaware until recently that her ID card functioned as a transit pass, however.
Low transit usage by the Met Council is not a new phenomenon, said former council member Annette Meeks, who was an appointee of former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"It was always a very, very sensitive subject that no one really wanted to talk about," Meeks said. "Which is: We set the policy, but we don't ride it. I don't suspect that's changed much."
Meeks said she was a regular rider of the No. 16 bus, and noticed issues on a ground level during her tenure, like missing bus shelters and snowplows drenching riders because of shelter placement.
"If you talk to commuters and people who use the system on a daily basis, you get a very different impression from people who [are] what I call 'casual' riders: 'Oh, I ride it when I go to a Vikings game.' That's very different," Meeks said.
Levinson, the professor, compared the low transit usage by the Met Council to the board of Apple not using computers. He has frequently criticized the lack of information at most Twin Cities bus stops when compared to other cities, including route numbers, destinations, frequency and maps.
"Having that experience of being lost on the transit system is probably a useful experience for [council members] to have to understand why their system isn't as attractive as it should be, why it's not as popular as they hope it would be," Levinson said.
Nick Magrino, a transit blogger with 86 rides in the past two months, wrote last year that the prioritization of large-scale transit projects over basic improvements to the existing system indicates to him that the decisionmakers aren't regular riders. In an interview, he highlighted the experience of taking the No. 18 bus, which creeps along Nicollet Mall during rush hour, packed with commuters, shoppers and the occasional crying baby.
"If people who are in these positions of power, who are making these decisions, took some of the worst local bus route buses," Magrino said, "I think it would be a very different experience than, for example, taking an express coach from a Maple Grove park-and-ride to downtown Minneapolis."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732