Fix the Green Line Slowdown

Given that the average rider's trip on the new light rail Green Line is just 3 miles long, its slower than expected travel times between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns shouldn't discourage patronage much. In fact, weekday ridership is already 10 percent above projections for next year, even before a likely boost once fall classes start at the University of Minnesota campus bisected by the tracks.

Metro Transit officials have said all along that if you want a quick trip the length of the Green Line's route, take the 94 Flyer bus down the freeway. The light rail is designed more for shorter connections to the many busy nodes between the downtowns.

But one impact of the Green Line slowdown—sometimes clocking well more than 20 minutes over the 40-minute end-to-end timetable originally estimated, according to the Star Tribune—should be a concern. That's the added cost of putting more trains on the line in an effort to keep closer to the posted schedule. According to Frederick Melo in the Pioneer Press, that could inflate the service's $35 million annual gross operating budget, already a sore point with transit-bashing conservatives.

Trains often being forced to wait at 46 traffic signals in St. Paul has been blamed for the delays. City officials have rejected giving the light rail signal preemption such as the Blue Line enjoys along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. "That is just seriously bad engineering," UofM Prof. David Levinson told the Strib. "If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible."

Former Metro Transit planner Aaron Issacs has suggested a sensible compromise on—give the trains full signal preemption at 19 intersections along University Avenue where combined car-light rail traffic is 3 to 8 times greater than that on the cross streets. 

"It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic," Metro Transit chief Brian Lamb said in a statement quoted in the Pioneer Press.

So far, city officials say giving the Green Line the green light anywhere would unduly disadvantage drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the tracks. They contend that fine-tuning a signal system that is supposed to give the trains partial priority can solve the problem. According to Isaacs, however, "There are simply too many traffic lights spaced too close together for conventional signal timing with priority to move the trains along."

I live in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis and often drive across Hiawatha and the Blue Line tracks. Sometimes I get delayed a few seconds by the trains. Big whoop. If St. Paul leaders want to reap the full benefits of the Green Line's game-changing transit improvement, they should do more to help it operate efficiently and economically.

Photo from Metro Transit, Flikr

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Central Corridor 


Life-Saving Legislation: A New Law to Prevent Heroin Overdose Deaths

With more and more fatalities each year, heroin overdose has become a statewide epidemic. Minnesota’s heroin-related deaths in 2013 almost doubled from 2011 and the upward trend continues.

Addressing this problem, Minnesota's state policymakers created and passed life-saving legislation. Thanks to a law that takes effect this month, those who seek medical help for a person experiencing a drug overdose are immune from criminal charges, like possession or use of drugs. This protection encourages bystanders to call 911 and save a life, without fear of prosecution.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is the first department in Minnesota to implement the law’s second component which allows law enforcement to carry and administer an antidote for heroin overdose, starting August 1st.

Licensed physicians must authorize officers to use the drug, which can fully revive an overdose victim if it’s dispensed in time. Aiming to train at least 75 deputies, the Hennepin County program will cost about $12,000. The money will mainly come from the drug forfeiture and seizure fund, according to Sheriff Rich Stanek, quoted in a Minnesota Public Radio story.

Counties across the state are keeping an eye on the outcomes of Hennepin's new policy to determine a course of action. But as departments delay medical authorization, officer training, and resource management, lives are at risk.

When police in Hennepin County (and hopefully the rest of Minnesota) implement specific techniques to save lives from heroin overdose, the whole population benefits from community-centered law enforcement. With more tools and training programs like this one, police could soon find methods to cope with other challenges, such as mental health, street harassment, or additional substance abuse issues.

Minnesota lawmakers made incredible progress with this legislation and Hennepin County is courageously adapting its law enforcement strategies to prioritize people's needs and safety. Now, it is up to the rest of Minnesota's communities to follow suit.

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Community Safety  Public Health 

Summer Melt’s Impact on High School Graduates

Many new high school graduates are spending the summer thinking about their fall college plans. College is an enormous shift for recent grads. Between classes, being away from home, and finalizing school financing plans, new, soon-to-be first year college students shoulder considerable anxiety.

For most nervous graduates and their families, however, high school resources are suddenly unavailable to them. Many students struggling with the high school-to-college transition are reluctant to approach their new school’s staff for fear of ‘making a bad impression." Returning to their high school support system can bridge the gap.

According to an Associated Press investigation, “first-generation college students and low-income families are particularly vulnerable” to this post-grad “summer melt.” In a startling statistic by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, up to 40% of prospective community college students in large metropolitan areas abandon their plans.

As many as half of these students decide not to pursue post-secondary education due to financial concerns. They are, however, making this decision without professional guidance.

What is the solution to this growing problem in Minnesota? Enhance the number of counselors in our schools and extend summer counseling hours for recently graduated seniors.

Minnesota’s counselor shortage is well-documented. In February of this year, the Minnesota School Counselors Association urged Governor Dayton to continue working on Minnesota’s dismal counselor statistics. With one school counselor for every 792 students, Minnesota ranks 48th in the United States.

The press release also cites the fact that counselors offer a unique range of talents that help students. Their role in the school “helps students maximize their academic success, career readiness, and personal and social development.”

This service is crucial to all Minnesota families and reduces many issues facing students and colleges. Having a better understanding of financial aid plans can improve the financial health of students. Knowing what college courses will be like can lead to less time spent in remedial courses and improve retention. Familiarity with academic and procedural deadlines can ease students’ navigation of college bureaucracy.

Counseling is crucial in preparing students for college of any form. After leaving for college, when many students need it more than ever, this already limited resource ends. While not all graduates will take advantage of school counseling resources, many will. While “summer melt” is a real phenomenon, it doesn't have to be a reality for Minnesota’s high school graduates.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education  K-12 education 

Let’s Talk About Sex (Well, Power)

Fresh faced, anxious, excited teens head off to college. Their energy fills the campus for the first few weeks. These kids are eager to grow but nervous to fail, unsure if they are truly prepared for what lies ahead. While most students worry about grades, social acceptance, and paying for school, something that typically doesn’t cross their minds looms on the horizon: sexual violence.

We’ve all seen the national headlines. The good news is campus sexual violence crimes are increasingly reported to the police. Minnesota is experiencing a 23% increase of victims reporting sexual assaults. However, despite the increased issue profile and police reports, 1 in 5 women attending a Minnesota higher education institution will be sexually assaulted while in college. The victims are frequently marginalized while perpetrators seem to escape responsibility. Complicating the situation, colleges act as both a police force and adjudicator. A recent New York Times story, like others published across the country, captures the problem's nature. American higher education is riddled with victim-blaming, lacks training and regularly commits procedural errors in dealing with cases.

We cannot stand for this treatment of victims of not only sexual assault, but a system that does not adequately protect them. So why does this happen? And how do we fix it?

Katie Eichele, Director of the Aurora Center, which serves victims, survivors, relatives of victims, and those who are concerned with sexual violence at the University of Minnesota, explains that these cases often arise from a lack of understanding of what sexual assault and rape are, as well as what it means to consent to sex or other intimate activities.

The center operates from an affirmative consent approach, which dictates that only a “yes” means yes: silence is not consent, and "no" does not mean one should pry further. 

Eichele says there are a number of pathways one can take to extinguish this issue. First and foremost there must be early education clarifying what consent, sexual assault, and rape actually mean as well as training that dispels sexual assault myths. Bystander training should also be available. This training has to take place before students step foot on a college campus as more than 40% of victims experienced sexual assault before age 18. Early training creates greater understanding of consent and abuse, leading to social adjustment that changes how institutions and individuals view sexual interactions and sexual assault as well as increasing men's engagement in speaking out against sexual assault. 

More specialized training also needs to be required for anyone dealing with sexual assault cases. This includes but is not limited to medical examiners, first responders, counselors, and police.  Improved and increased comprehensive training reduces misunderstood cues and heighten awareness of signs of sexual assault. 

Victims also must have access to confidential resources to learn more about what it means to file a police report and what options are available to them. As the process of filing reports for sexual assault can be personal, intrusive, and emotionally grueling victims need a support system that has the specialized means to aid them in the proceedings.

Lastly, we have to debunk the notions that rape is about sex and is typically commited by strangers. Rape is about power and nearly all rapes are commited by someone the victim knows, making it more difficult for victims to speak up and act against their perpetrator. And while changing process is easier than changing attitudes, it is an excellent place to start.

There are a slew of issues complicating this problem even further, ranging from how schools punish perpetrators to a victim-punishing slant in our society. However, it doesn't have to stay this way. 

Let's make some noise. Let's talk about how to fix our inadequate system. Let's prove that the arc of the moral universe does in fact bend toward justice.

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Higher Education  Racial Inequalities  Community Safety 

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2015 Projections Show Success of Progressive Property Tax Reforms

The Minnesota State House of Representatives Research Department recently released two new property tax reports. The first showed that statewide property taxes will decline by $49 million or 0.6 percent from 2013 to 2014—the first statewide property tax reduction in over a decade; this report was examined in a July 21 Minnesota 2020 article. The second report projected that property taxes statewide will increase by 2.8 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Conservatives ignored the first report, but were quick to jump on the second as proof that the 2013 and 2014 property tax reforms were a failure. The Star Tribune quoted former House Tax Committee Chair Greg Davids (R-Preston), “This report proves they [progressive legislators] didn’t keep their word and now Minnesotans are going to pay an even steeper price [i.e., higher property taxes].”

This conservative critique is off target, the product of wishful political thinking. It's a desperate desire to discredit progressive accomplishments made during the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions.

As House Research staff readily acknowledge, no one knows with certainty what 2015 property taxes will be because local governments have yet to set their levies. Proclamations of the failure of progressive property tax reform based on 2015 projections are at best premature. Nonetheless, the new House Research simulation represents the most informed guess on 2015 property tax levels currently available and they should not be dismissed out of hand.

If we assume that the 2015 House Research projection is reasonably accurate (at least on a statewide basis), what does it tell us about the success or failure of progressive tax reforms? The projected 2.8 percent statewide property tax increase includes taxes on new construction—including new homes and businesses that were built and improvements to existing properties that were made. Obviously, if a new structure is constructed on a vacant lot, the tax on the property will increase.

To gauge the tax increase on properties that underwent no year-to-year improvements that drive up property value, it is necessary to exclude new construction from the projected 2015 total tax. Excluding new construction, statewide property taxes are projected to increase by 1.6 percent in 2015, which is less than the projected rate of inflation for 2015.

Progressives never promised that the reforms enacted over the last two years will prevent all future property tax increases, just as private businesses never promise to prevent all increases in the cost of bread, refrigerators, gasoline, or housing. Inflation drives up the cost of goods and services over time—both public and private.

Conservatives appear to argue that any property tax increase proves that progressive property tax reforms were a failure. This is not only unrealistic but it is a standard that conservatives never applied to their own tax policies. For example, during the tenure of Governor Pawlenty when a conservative agenda dominated state fiscal policy, the average annual growth in statewide property taxes excluding new construction was 4.4 percent—significantly greater than the annual rate of inflation over these years and nearly three times greater than the 1.6 percent increase projected for 2015. Yet, not a critical peep from conservative policymakers.

If the House Research 2015 property tax projection is accurate, it shows that the progressive tax reforms enacted over the last two years are succeeding in holding tax growth on existing property at or below the rate of inflation. This is something that conservatives failed to accomplish when they controlled state government, despite all their “no new tax” rhetoric. Minnesotans must decide whether they prefer the sub-inflationary property tax increases resulting from progressive tax policy or the super-inflationary increases wrought by conservatives.

Posted in Fiscal Policy | Related Topics: Property Tax 

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Climate Change as an Economic Threat

Last Thursday, Governor Dayton charged Minnesota to eliminate coal from the state’s energy production. This aspiration is not only rooted in environmental concern; climate change poses a serious economic threat to the state. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the smartest business strategy to lessen the risk.

The Midwest faces a daunting financial future if we do not shrink our carbon footprint. According to a June report by The Risky Business Project, midwest agriculture is especially vulnerable. If no progress is made to slow rising temperatures, the entire region could face a decline of up to 63% in its crop yield by the end of the century.

Farmers can accommodate climate change with strategies like double-and-triple cropping, crop rotation, and seed modification but these adaptations come at a high price. Shifting new crops requires expensive new equipment and expertise which often impose economic losses.

Climate change could move agricultural business away from the Midwest to the Upper Great Plains, Northwest, and Canada. “This shift could put individual Midwest farmers and farm communities at risk if production moves to cooler climates,” the report warns.

As greenhouse gases accumulate, heat and humidity threaten Minnesota’s public health and economy. When temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher pair with high humidity, the danger of heat stroke and death increases. Research shows that from 2020 to 2039, Minnesota could see between 3 to 7 days every year with such dangerous temperatures and humidity levels.

With hotter conditions, labor productivity for outdoor workers will plummet. Demand for electricity to fuel air conditioning will increase, and costs for residential and commercial consumers will skyrocket.

By understanding the economic consequences of climate change, businesses and governments can integrate climate-related risks into their decisions on capital expenditures and infrastructure projects.

Governor Dayton’s action against unsustainable energy portrays the sentiment that must be adopted by all policymakers and business owners in order to mitigate climate change. Our economy depends on it.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture  Economic Growth  Climate Change 

Transportation Network Companies Now Licensed in Minneapolis

Last Friday morning, the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance legalizing and regulating transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. The new regulatory framework includes licensing fees, insurance standards, and driver qualification requirements. The ordinance also includes measures to significantly lessen the regulatory burden of taxi companies, ensuring a fairer regulatory playing field for decidedly similar businesses.

Transportation network companies are now authorized players in Minneapolis’ transportation landscape. I am pleased with the ordinance. It unobtrusively protects the public interest. Ward 5 Councilmember Blong Yang, however, expressed several reservations meriting attention. For one, taxi companies still bear a weightier regulatory burden. TNC’s can adjust fares, employing demand pricing while taxis cannot.

Yang was also concerned that low-income and high-crime neighborhood residents risked underservice or exclusion if the TNC were to become the dominant model. The use of TNCs requires access to banking services and a smartphone – a barrier for many. Drivers might discriminate against riders, too. The notion of drafting public policy to accommodate illegally operating multibillion-dollar companies that may disadvantage some of Minneapolis’ most vulnerable is unsettling.

Ward 3 Councilmember Jacob Frey, one of the authors of the ordinance, addressed Yang's concerns. Responding to Yang’s fear that the wheelchair surcharge are insufficient financial subsidy incentives for taxi companies and TNCs to provide service to disabled passengers, Frey noted that the city will audit the TNCs and taxi companies to ensure that public interest goals are being met. 

I am not a neutral observant of the TNC regulation debate. I reguarly use Uber. And, I am happy that TNCs are now authorized participants in Minneapolis' rapidly evolving multimodal transportation mix. However, we – the government and innovators – must rigorously ensure that the system is fair. That will be an ongoing effort.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Regulation  Minneapolis / St Paul  Road Safety 

It’s About the People

One of the drawbacks of the more technocratic approach to education reform is that, in its attention to numbers and markets, it can lose sight of the human element of education.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Jal Mehta’s thoughts on the race problem in deeper learning. The schools and teachers that use deeper learning practices like experiential and project-based learning are more likely to serve white students, which aggravates equity gaps in education. Gia Truong of Envision Education followed up in a guest post, sharing a personal story of being shunned by a teacher over cultural misunderstandings. She offers it as an example of “institutional racism, when a system makes it possible for white privilege to negatively impact a person of color without anyone batting an eye.” She illustrates the importance of the classroom level relationship between student and teacher and how race, culture, and privilege inform it.

At the macro level, Professors Kara Finnigan, University of Rochester, and Alan Daly, University of California-San Diego, describe the importance of relationships between central office administrators and principals. If these relationships are weak or nonexistent, system-level change becomes difficult, if not outright impossible. Strengthening these ties by, for example, creating additional collaboration time and explicitly addressing the lack of strong relationships, can help the system as a whole make change faster. Ensuring that these relationships involve trust and are two-directional, as opposed to district administrators sending information to schools without receiving information in return, is also critical.

As we have shown before, Minnesota’s student body is growing more diverse and each district’s experience is different. Left unaddressed, this is a recipe for aggravated institutional racism and districts struggling with their own internal relationship networks as they adapt. While these challenges may trickle into test scores or other performance indicators, the underlying causes need to be addressed by teachers and administrators. This requires both the individual attention to race, culture, and privilege that Troung advocates and the attention to district-level relationship networks that Finnigan and Daly describe.

Education is a human endeavor. We can put numbers to parts of it but the real work of changing our system for the better must come back to human relationships. Our policymakers would do well to remember this and it’s one more argument for inviting the voices of educators, students, and families into school-specific reform more often.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration 

The All-Star Games Gives Us Another Reason to Love Public Transportation

Over and over, transit advocates make the case that areas of density need better public transportation because there is not enough capacity for everyone to drive; the roads would have to be too wide and the parking lots too large. Population growth projections will make today's traffic congestion frustrations a fond memory.

People who live in low density areas dominated by cars often decry the money spent on public transportation. During high capacity events, however, everyone gets on board.

Between the Basilica Block Party and pre-All-Star games festivities this past weekend and game goers on Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people visited Minneapolis. The transit advocate’s description of the capacity problem exists especially for these large events. To have each of these people drive by themselves would take many more highway lanes than possible and enormous parking ramps in a spectacular waste of money and land. Buses, with a capacity of about 40 people, and light rail unit trains with a 200 passenger capacity, efficiently move many more people.

Midnight Friday, the Hennepin Avenue bus was packed with Block Party concert goers. The Met Council estimated 4,500 people took the Green line to the TCF Bank Stadium for the Saturday All-Star Concert, easing parking problems and traffic congestion for those that did drive. For those riding SWTransit to Twins games or the special Metro Transit buses to the State Fair, be thankful you don’t have to drive on an 8 lane highway and then walk a half mile through a sea of parking. Multi-modal transportation systems work for special events just like they work for everyday use.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Our Nation Evolves and Improves

We have just finished the celebration of our nation’s birth, 238 years ago. This is a good time to consider that birth and get a better understanding of the beginnings and development of the United States. In particular, we should look at some of the words from two of the important documents from that time; the Declaration of Independence, and the Preamble to the Constitution. These words can help us understand what our founding fathers had in their minds and how we evolved from there.

Start with the title of the Declaration of Independence, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." Today we are the United States of America but 238 years ago we were just united. Our history has seen us evolve from a loose confederation of united states into a powerful, centralized federal government of United States. That evolutionary direction was confirmed by a Civil War that resulted in the deaths of about 3% of the population. Debate continues over the powers of the States and Federal governments, as it should, but we should not fool ourselves we would not be a great nation and maybe not a nation at all if united had not become United.

Looking at the rest of the Declaration, we see at the start of the second paragraph one of the great phrases of history, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Eleven years later, after the Articles of Confederation revelaed unsurmountable barriers to national growth, cooperaton and expansion, our next great document, the Constitution of the United States, starts with, “We, the People of the United States.” The current meaning of “all men” and “We, the People” means something different than it did when they were first written. “All men” truly meant just males and did not include women but it also meant just white men and depending on the state, maybe only property owning white men.

The same restrictions equally applied to  the phrase“We, the People." This should not disparage the birth of our nation because inequality was the common truth for the world. Since that time, our nation has been a leader in the evolution of the meaning of those words. That evolution has been slow and gradual, it took four score and seven years from our Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation and another 102 years till the 1965 Voting Rights Bill. It was 133 years from the approval of the “We, the People” in our Constitution before women voting enfranchisement through the 19th Amendment.

It is easy to be discouraged by slow progress but it is also encouraging that we  move forward. Yes, recent Supreme Court rulings and our do-nothing Congress seem to be pushing us in the wrong direction but I continue to have faith in Americans and humanity. Let us all work to a country and world where all all are treated equally and fairly.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Government Policy 

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