Minnesota boasts one of the nation's most extensive rural transit networks, but expansion to reach statutory goals has stalled with virtually flat funding in recent years, and it's unlikely that coverage over the state's vast open spaces can ever grow to meet all the needs of disadvantaged residents.
As a result, lack of mobility for job opportunities can hold back the poor living in the countryside. In south-central Minnesota, however, the antipoverty agency has found a way to provide cars to low-income people at affordable prices by soliciting donations of fixer-upper vehicles. Since 1998, the Minnesota Valley Action Council's Wheel Get There program has put hundreds of folks a year behind the wheel for as little as a few hundred dollars.
With wider awareness among potential contributors, the program could do even more. After all, it makes more sense to donate an old car to a transportation program than to the public broadcasting stations better known for seeking that kind of tax-deductible charity. As it is, according to Cynthia Boyd in MinnPost, Wheel Get There attracts many more calls for help than it can meet.
"We've never had to advertise," Dan Jones, the program's director, told Boyd. "Word spreads." As of last week, she reported, no high-mileage cars that typically go for $400 to $600 were available. Pricier later models the program gets are out of reach for many potential clients. For those with a bit more resources, there's a no-interest, new-car leasing program that started with a small federal Recovery Act grant to buy 16 economy cars and continues as lease payments and payoffs finance purchases of more autos.
Wheel Get There sells a few of its donated cars for junk, repairs many more and sells others "as is" to people who can get them fixed up on their own.
If there are any qualms about this program based in Mankato and serving nine surrounding counties, it would be its surface resemblance to a wacky suggestion by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota during a Twin Cities bus strike several years ago: Shut down transit for good and spend the public money on free cars for all the riders. If you don't like metro traffic and air pollution now, you'll hate it if that ever happens.
Fortunately, that's not likely. But Wheel Get There offers no freebies, and it makes excellent sense as a hand up, not a handout, to people struggling in sparsely populated areas where scaling up transit is a tough slog.
In my last blog, I looked at how an ever shrinking portion of the royalties from oil extraction in the Gulf on the Federally owned Outer Continental Shelf go to public spaces like Minnesota’s national forests. Since 1965, $70 million of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) dollars have gone to Minnesota, in theory, balancing out some of oil extraction's negative environmental impacts.
Some of these funds are often diverted away from conservation by Congress, and now a new bill – the FAIR Act – could divert even more revenue.
What about energy and other resource extraction happening on public lands here in Minnesota?
Minnesota has about 51.2 million acres of land, of which 8.4 million acres are State-owned and about 5.5 million acres that are managed by the DNR. Unlike our neighbors to the West and South, there are no natural gas, coal, or oil deposits being explored or extracted on these lands. However, they do play host to mineral mining, fuel pipelines, timber collection, and other economic activities that potentially impose costs to the environment and Minnesota taxpayer long term.
So where are the royalties from those activities going? According to Kathy Lewis, Assistant Director of Lands and Minerals at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that money goes a number of places.
In most cases, revenues from public land are allocated in away that reflects the purpose or location of the land itself. For example, monies from the 2.5 million acres of school and University land goes toward scholarships, endowed professorships, and research. Revenues from the 4 million acres are tax forfeited lands are split 50-50, half going to the county the land resides in and the other half goes to the State’s general fund which can be spent on any State budget item.
As for conservation—royalties and revenues from “acquired lands,” about 1.3 million acres and where a good portion of private extraction activities occur, go toward conservation and environmental efforts. However, like with Federal public lands, part of this revenue goes to the general fund.
Should these dollars, earned through activities that, in many cases, come at an environmental cost to current and future generations, be going toward any state budget item, or be reserved for efforts to balance out the negative effects of resource extraction?
There is no easy answer as to how much we should favor extracting resouces now or how to best allocate activites and programs that benefit the current generation versus the next. Despite this, our policies need to better take into account how our actions today come at a cost tomorrow—especially when those actions occur on public lands and impose public costs.
With the boom in urban living, cities are eager to grow their populations and draw people into the urban core. One big challenge, though, is that our housing stock isn’t in line with modern households. Most homes and apartments are oriented towards families, but a growing number of people live alone. In Minneapolis, over half of households consist of just one person, and the average household size is only 2.2 people (according to a recent presentation from the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development). Large dwellings for single people can be costly to both the environment and one’s wallet.
Many cities have considered housing code changes that better suit small households. Minneapolis is looking at changing its ban on adding accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as carriage houses or “granny flats,” to current lots. At the moment, ADUs are banned in all but one neighborhood. Allowing them in the rest of the city offers several benefits. Small households can share one large lot, while multigenerational families can live together in adjoining but private homes.
Imagine a family with kids in their early 20s. Many young adults are living at home these days because they can’t afford to live elsewhere—so a separate apartment on the same lot could be a perfect place for them to live while their earnings are low but their desire for private space high. Down the road, perhaps those same parents are aging, ready to downsize, and need some help from their children. That same apartment offers a safe option to age in place, with their kids and grandkids in the main house. ADUs could also make it easier for some immigrant communities whose households are traditionally larger. Finding housing spacious enough for big families of minimal or modest means isn’t easy, leading to overcrowding, splitting up families, or substandard conditions.
For people on the opposite end of the household-size spectrum, another trend is microhousing, or building smaller apartments. In Minneapolis, the current minimum dwelling size is 350 square feet for an efficiency apartment and 500 square feet for all other units. Other cities have begun to experiment with building units in the range of 150 to 300 square feet, and so far they seem quite popular to renters, particularly Millennials. And smaller units don’t necessarily mean more traffic. Twenty units of 250 square feet may house the same number of people as ten units of 500 square feet, since the latter could include couples or families. In areas with good transit options, lower-income people are also less likely to have cars and therefore need extra parking spaces.
If done wisely, higher-density housing can still be attractive, safe, and a boon to the neighborhood. And given Minnesota’s serious affordable-housing shortage, we can’t afford to leave any stone unturned as we look for cost-effective solutions.
High-density housing spreads the cost of property taxes, maintenance, and utilities among more people, while providing a small simple home for people who don’t need or can’t afford more. If cities are going to attract the kind of vibrant growth they need, it’s time for us to reconsider housing codes in the face of America’s changing household composition.
My recent article extolling the high-quality transit progress of deep-red Utah got some blowback from a critic of sales tax funding. While that's a question for debate over its relative economic fairness and the feasibility of alternate revenue sources, the larger point about the Beehive State's success in building a multimodal transportation system for the 21st century in a sprawling, conservative metropolis should be beyond dispute.
Confirmation of this came when a Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce official told a November gathering of transportation advocates in Washington, D.C., that "Salt Lake is eating our lunch when it comes to transit investments." Will Schroeer's comment came after Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams explained to the Transportation for America (T4A) meeting the strong link between transportation investment and economic growth.
For example, Utah government, foundation and business leaders recently combined to develop an ambitious 30-year transportation plan and project that closing an $11.3 billion funding gap to implement it would generate an additional $183 billion in local economic output.
And it's been metro Utah's ability to get public buy-in for that kind of thinking that sets the Wasach Front region apart from the left-leaning Twin Cities and much of the rest of the country as well. Now transportation boosters from all over are looking to Utah to spearhead bringing those arguments to gridlocked Washington, where consideration of new revenue for transportation has been off the table for years.
"Local business leaders recognize that the right transportation infrastructure is a matter of economic life and death," Minneapolis' Schroeer was quoted. "But we know we can't go it alone, so it's important to join with leaders from other communities to ensure that we have a strong federal partner."
Good publicly-run transportation facilities, from roads, bridges and complete streets to transit and airports, shouldn't be a partisan issue. Done right, they can benefit all constituencies. So, by all means, let's argue about how to pay for them, but not about whether we should.
Shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday break, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities administrators unveiled a long-awaited reorganization plan called Charting the Future.
Initial reactions to the stated objectives of the plan have been generally positive, but cautiously mixed. As the old feast meal expression goes, the proof is in the pudding.
That course doesn’t get served until January. Until then, objectives and lofty stated goals are all we’ve got to look at.
One of the early criticisms of the plan is that a reorganized MnSCU system will be heavy on business-focused curricula at the expense of humanities.
Also, as Minnesota sees a surge in its minority population, the importance of making higher education accessible to those already facing a tremendous education gap in this state becomes a priority. This is a commendable goal of the plan.
But while Charting the Future emphasizes affordability, it lacks a clear outline for reaching the underserved population in Minnesota.
Charting the Future’s efforts toward making higher education more affordable for students builds from post-secondary enrollment option courses (PSEO), which already exists for high school students who are looking to gain free college credits. While there is presently a tuition freeze holding back the trend of rising costs in higher education, this will come to an end after Spring 2015.
The current ratio of state appropriations compared to student tuition costs is now the greatest burden for students in recent MnSCU experience: presently 60 percent student dependent and 40 percent state support.
Projected cost savings contained in the draft of the report include opportunities for students to minimize unnecessary expenses and classes. The ability to successfully transfer without losing credits, and the ability to test out of courses where the student has prior knowledge will save students money that would otherwise be spend on redundant courses.
MnSCU institutions should also receive cost savings from the plan. By removing duplicate courses, offering more online courses, and minimizing administrative expenses, MnSCU should save costs that will hopefully trickle down to students.
The implementation will likely take three to four years, according to Chancellor Stephen Rosenstone. He wants to see the colleges and universities within MnSCU “playing as a team.”
That needs to start now while the pudding is still being baked. Student and faculty involvement has been minimal in devising the proposed changes. Campus-rooted input is needed; the first independent review of the plan shouldn’t come from collegiate accrediting agencies.
Imagine that you are a young couple setting out to buy your first home. You have decided that you would like to live in Saint Paul. One of the many great neighborhoods you would probably look at is the historic Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. This neighborhood sits atop the bluffs on the east of side of the city overlooking the Minnesota River and downtown, a prime location here in Saint Paul.
Just a couple of blocks off the bluffs is a street called Maria Ave. It's quaint lined with modest foursquare victorians and homes that have been around for over 100 years. On the corner of Maria and 4th, is a larger, two-story Italian style home that has stood on this corner for 136 years.
Just a few years ago this house was in such disrepair, it could have easily been torn down. Instead, the City of Saint Paul invested in the neighborhood and as part of a program called the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. This home has now been fully restored to its former glory and is ready for a family to move back in.
As part of its effort to be ‘the most liveable city in the America’ the city of Saint Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development through the Housing and Redevelopment Authority created an initiative called Inspiring Communities. This initiative is all about preserving, growing and sustaining our neighborhoods here in Saint Paul. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program is just one of the many programs they utilize to make this happen.
Why is it important that we rehabilitate this building or any building really?
Because living in a sustainable community is about preserving and reusing what is already there. Not just tearing everything down and building new. Rehabilitating existing homes helps to keep things out of the landfill and it helps to preserve our history. Rehabbing and preserving are key components to making our communities sustainable, livable and desirable to live in.
The City of Saint Paul is on the forefront of making sure we have sustainable communities with initiatives like Inspiring Communities and programs like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. We all want to live in healthy neighborhoods and energy efficient homes. I think this says it all:
"A unique opportunity exists for those interested in buying a home in Saint Paul. Homes rehabilitated through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program are affordable and energy efficient, which translates to lower operating costs over the course of owning the home.
Does your community have an Inspiring Communities Initiative or a Neighborhood Stabilization Program? Find out and if it doesn’t, maybe you should ask your city to create one.
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St. Paul’s Transportation Committee last week recommended a route for the city’s first streetcar line, meant to be the first building block of a future streetcar network. Seventh Street, from Randolph Avenue in the west and through downtown to Arcade Street in the east, is the route the committee favors, which will now go to the city’s Planning Commission and then the City Council for review early next year.
With funding options still uncertain and a long planning timeframe left before construction would get going, now is our chance to look at the current proposal and bring the community input it needs if it’s going to be refined into a productive, equitable, high-quality transit option.
Streetcars still catch a lot of reflexive grief from some onlookers, as if that transit mode is just not a serious option no matter what. (The St. Paul feasibility study, perhaps worried about that kind of accusation, takes pains to describe streetcars as more like “scaled-down light rail service.”) No one transit mode can be evaluated in a vacuum. The way a specific transit line functions in practice is what really matters--whether it has a positive economic impact, and whether it helps make a city more accessible and more equitable.
As I’ve noted here before, development potential for transit is tricky to forecast, and may be more closely linked to pro-development policies than to the transit line’s presence itself. The continuing fascination of developers with streetcars, however, and the possibility of using a value-capture district to fund a St. Paul streetcar line, means there’s certainly potential in this proposal. Bill Lindeke at Streets.MN, who’s part of the Transportation Committee that worked on this proposal, is particularly hopeful about an economic boost for East Seventh Street between downtown and Metro State. St. Paul and its consultants expect right now that the proposed line would generate $134 million in increased property value from development, and applying a value-capture district to that could take a big bite out of the intended $246 million budget for this line.
The other main reason that transit lines improve urban economies, however, is improved connections between people and businesses. So whether the streetcar line works as a transit service is not only important for the accessibility and equity of St. Paul, but also for the economic impact of the city’s transit network. Just because the proposed Seventh Street line was predicted to have the most riders of the 17 alternative streetcar routes which St. Paul planners considered doesn’t guarantee that the proposed line would provide riders with a new or improved transit service.
Streetcars are slower than most light rail, but depending on the execution, they can provide a genuine savings in travel time over existing transit options--the longer, although more expensive, “full” version of the Minneapolis streetcar proposal would actually do just that. The problem in Minneapolis is that the shorter “starter” version, all by itself, is not a big enough improvement to the transit network, and it’s still debatable whether the more expensive “full” version will ever be completed.
Similarly, we don’t know from the feasibility study completed so far whether the proposed St. Paul line would make enough impact on travel time or availability of service. Seventh Street is a major road with existing bus service along the vast majority of the length that the proposed streetcar covers. If this streetcar is going to be a valuable addition to the transit network, it matters whether it would be faster or more frequent than the existing service, since it isn’t aimed at expanding the range and coverage of transit.
A more detailed ridership study will come next, along with open houses and public hearings in the next couple of months. Let’s press for more detail, as soon as possible, on how this St. Paul streetcar line would measure up as transit.
I am glad the Star Tribune published Frank Bruni’s opinion piece, “No pain, no gain for school kids?” In it, he raises some important points about how we are parenting and educating American children these days.
First, Bruni is not covering new ground by pointing out how some children in our culture are too coddled and indulged, but it bears repeating. His example of a Boston school prohibiting kids from wearing celebratory, in-crowd t-shirts is illustrative of the pointlessness of political correctness. Kids don’t need a t-shirt to know whether or not they were invited to a party.
When Bruni delves into critiquing pushback against the Common Core, however, I begin to lose favor with what he has to say. Bruni seems to accept that the Common Core standards are as “rigorous” and self-esteem inducing as they are made out to be by those who promote them as the latest “solution” for our failing schools.
Sorry, but it’s just not that simple. First, I agree that American public schools are not challenging enough for most students. What I would like to see, as a parent and an educator, is more progress and innovation in how we design our schools and how we fund and support education in our country.
In my mind, the problems are structural ones, not what standards we are adhering to. After all, the Common Core standards do not offer a vast departure from what most states already had in place. Basically, the standards are said to focus on higher-level thinking, and a deeper look at subject matter, built around helping students learn the language and skill sets of a college-level academic world.
This sounds fine from a distance, but, as a nation, we must be prepared to acknowledge that it is a lot easier to standardize a curriculum than it is to standardize childhood. To go back to Bruni’s other point about children today being too protected from life’s difficulties, I would argue that too many children—and families—have been left without enough support or protection to make something like the Common Core standards worth taking seriously.
It has been said, but I will say it again: the United States has one of the highest, and ever-expanding, rates of childhood poverty in the developed world. Our inability, as a nation, to focus on this first, and educational standards second, is a shame.
It is easy to critique a culture of abundance, where over-anxious parents and school administrators hover over children and try to protect them from all of life’s normal ups and downs. It is a different thing all together, though, to talk about the children who are not being protected, nurtured, or supported enough. Let’s be honest: the roughly 15 million children living in poverty in the United States are in a survival mode nothing like that of children who did not get invited to a classmate’s party.
How, exactly, are the Common Core standards going to help all children greet the school day well-fed, well-rested, and equipped with the peace of mind needed to dig in and do their best work?
While controversial new extraction techniques have quieted predictions of imminent global "peak oil" production that were rampant just a few years back, it's becoming clear that another kind of petroleum maximum was reached nearly a decade ago.
Since 2004, through boom and bust economic cycles, U.S. consumption of gasoline has steadily declined along with parallel drops in miles traveled and the overall number of light-duty cars and trucks on the roads. According to University of Michigan automobility researcher Michael Sivak, American drivers burned almost 15 billion gallons less in 2011 than in the peak year of 2004, a decline of 11 percent.
"Given that the maxima in the fuel-consumption rates occurred several years prior to the ... economic downturn, these maxima have a good chance of being permanent peaks," Sivak was quoted in Scientific American.
Along with less driving spurred by rising urbanization and transportation alternatives, plus communications and retailing advances that can replace travel altogether, sharply improved vehicle mileage is also behind petrol's waning. And that's been driven by a combination of higher prices at the pump and federal fuel economy standards that tighten to fleetwide averages of 34.1 miles per gallon in 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. The latest figure across 2013 models: 29.8 mpg, a bit ahead of what's expected to stay on pace.
This is all terrific news for both the environment and the economy. It also rebuts claims that better fuel efficiency would only result in more driving. "It seems to turn the conventional wisdom about a rebound effect on its head," Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Scientific American. "Basically, efficiency and reduced driving are in the ring with oil dependence, and they've struck a double blow against it."
And the only obvious downside can be fixed with smart policy shifts. Less gas consumption means less fuel tax money to operate a road system that remains an important key to our prosperity. It's a problem at both the state and federal levels, with the U.S. Highway Trust Fund headed for bankruptcy next year, no thanks to per-gallon tax rates that haven't budged in two decades.
Besides de-linking transportation revenue from dependence on "ever more driving and fuel consumption," as Lovaas put it, a greater emphasis on maintaining existing roads and bridges and less on expansion is needed. That, along with development of more alternatives, is just common sense if we're driving and burning gas a lot less than before.
Last weekend’s Star Tribune strayed far from the streets of Minneapolis and provided several comprehensive looks at changes, issues and demographics of rural Minnesota. The timing was well-planned; we may be entering a new period of economic change that could alter Greater Minnesota for decades to come.
Several articles look at rural Minnesota—the 80 counties that aren’t part of the commonly cited seven county Twin Cities metro area – and how they have changed, grown, wilted or survived over the past three decades.
In a cover article, David Peterson quotes state demographer Susan Brower as noting 50 of Minnesota’s 87 counties are growing, including rural counties stretching from Canada to the Iowa border. On average, of course, that is a growth mode.
Peterson points out Osakis, in the Alexandria lakes region of west-central Minnesota, as a town that has turned its fortunes around. There are amenities there, such as lakes, and the Strib article makes it clear that Osakis had other attributes not uniformly found in small towns, such as local leadership.
The same article also notes there has been a repackaging of economic activity and population around hubs, such as Mankato. This doesn’t mean all is well in rural Minnesota. Rather, it points out there are bright spots that lift aggregate data for the entire countryside.
I’m offering these comments because one of the drivers of rural re-industrialization that has strengthened the overall rural economy and that of several small cities is ethanol production. Several Strib stories of the past week focused on how American bio-fuel policy is being challenged for a variety of reasons, and any pull back from ethanol fuels will have consequences for Minnesota farm income, rural jobs and the rural economy—although not the same for all farmers and rural residents.
One particularly helpful article for public understanding noted that Minnesota’s ethanol makers are looking for new markets, including export markets. That’s because the federal government is considering a reduction in the amount of ethanol it would require added to motor fuels in 2014 and 2015.
We won’t revisit all the issues at play in the debate over ethanol and renewable fuels. But make no mistake there are vested interests working throughout the public discourse of renewable fuels policy.
That brings up another Strib contribution to public understanding from this past Sunday. Bonnie Blodgett wrote a commentary on the importance and necessity of pure, publicly supported research at the University of Minnesota and other land grant universities across the nation. She explains clearly how public research support is shrinking while corporate support for applied research is on the rise. There are logical hooks to the latter, and research findings don’t always serve a public purpose.
We need more information about what is happening—socially, economically, demographically—in our rural communities. We need more pure research on ethanol and biofuels, and what they mean to our economy and environment. And we need what Blodgett notes that pure academic research brings - accountability.
“Shareholders don’t provide that,” she reminded Star Tribune readers. “Governments do.” And that is the source of pure, public research at our land grant universities.