The Center for the American Experiment (CAE) recently published a paper by Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Tool in which he blames planners at the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) for Twin Cities highway congestion. The opinion paper drew comparisons to two other cities, Indianapolis and Kansas City, suggesting that Twin Cities congestion is worse than our peers because those cities prioritize highway improvements over multimodal mobility strategies. The President and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce), the interim president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Executive Director of East Metro Strong prepared a thoughtful Star Tribune commentary in rebuttal, testifying to the value of transit to the families they represent (2,700 companies and over a half million workers), concluding,
“Business leaders want more transit, because we understand that we need it, and it works.”
There are a number of questionable arguments put forward in the CAE opinion piece, among them: A) that the Met Council and MnDOT failed to seek cost effective solutions to addressing highway congestion; B) that there is no such thing as “induced demand” from highway expansion projects; C) that transit is “less moral” than highways, declaring that trains are less safe and offer little in environmental benefits; and D) that equity should not be an overriding concern since “few people are so poor that they lack cars.”
Rather than dwell on these faulty arguments, however, this response focuses on what many believe to be two fundamental needs that must be addressed if we hope to mitigate growing levels of congestion. The first is to provide additional funding for transportation improvements of all modes, while the second, (as Met Council and MnDOT planners recommend) is to pursue and implement a multimodal approach to congestion that offers greater choice to all system users.
A new or expanded permanent funding source dedicated to transportation would go a long way toward addressing much of the congestion issues facing Minnesota. MnDOT and Met Council planners provide very specific details on the issue of where additional funds could be spent in Chapter 5 of the 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, adopted in 2015. The plan indicates that under a reasonable “Increased Revenue Scenario” ($8-$10 billion), by 2040 the metro area could add up to $1 billion for highway operations and maintenance (including development of low-cost traffic management technologies), $2-$2.5 billion for rebuilding the highway system, and between $4-5 billion for regional mobility improvements focusing on lower cost “spot mobility improvements” (e.g. lane striping, improved signal timing, or adding turn lanes, and only where necessary, expanding capacity). In comparison, the plan calls for an additional $600 million for safety and highway related bicycle and accessible pedestrian improvements. There is little doubt that with additional funding, significant progress could be achieved toward mitigating metro area congestion by providing resources to deliver many of the specific regional mobility projects throughout the metro area identified in the 2040 Plan.
In addition to the need for increased permanent and reliable funding, another fundamental key to addressing highway congestion is to provide system users with alternative, non-congested transportation options. It is fair to say that a vast majority of the region’s residents and businesses believe that an effective and vibrant public transit system combined with other modal options for cyclists and pedestrians are essential for a “prosperous, livable, equitable” region (Met Council’s words). Perhaps more importantly in terms of policy and budget dynamics, all levels of government have acknowledged that a sustainable future must include a variety of options for travel within urban areas.
A continued emphasis on transit and non-motorized modes is also especially vital given the demographics of the Twin Cities metropolitan region. According the Metro Transit use statistics, more than 155,000 people use transit every weekday in the Twin Cities. Nearly a third of all transit riders do not own a car. By 2040, the area is projected to add 824,000 new residents and 550,000 new jobs. Plus, the population is aging: by 2040, the percentage of residents age 65 or older – who likely would rather not have to drive for every trip – will nearly double what it is today.
The bus fleet should and will continue to be the backbone of the region’s transit system. There are currently well over 1,700 vehicles in the bus fleet, consisting of a wide variety of bus sizes that match the vehicle to the service it provides. Once again, with additional new revenue envisaged in the 2040 Plan, the network of transit corridors could be accelerated and improved, including 11 new Bus Rapid Transit projects spread throughout the region’s principal arterial system. These improvements would ease congestion by taking many single occupancy vehicles off the highway.
The time has come for all of us to recognize some undeniable truths: highway congestion will always be a challenge, and is an unfortunate byproduct of a vibrant regional economy; available funding, even in the best case scenarios, will be always be limited; and any solution to address the problem must be broad-based, offering modal choices that attract the entire spectrum of system users today and in the future. MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council are wise to be prioritizing the high value investments in transit, bike and pedestrian modes in support of ongoing highway improvements. Continuing this policy will help ease congestion on the regional highway system by reducing overall travel demand or by increasing the share of travel by modes other than the single-occupant automobile.
Matt Shands was a research analyst and the manager of the Transportation Economic Development (TED) program at the Minnesota Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, he was a funding specialist for Bonestroo (now Stantec) from 2005. He also founded and served as Executive Director for the Transportation Policy Institute in St. Paul from 1999 to 2005. He currently lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland.