Do we understand what our roads need? Most Minnesotans are excluded from conversations about transportation infrastructure. Local engineers and policymakers must kindle more public engagement in order to improve sustainability, efficacy, and accessibility in our transportation systems.
Issues like aging structures, insufficient maintenance funds, and evolving energy infrastructure make transportation decisions complex. Despite the severity of these concerns, the Minnesota public is largely uninformed about the pressures on community road systems, according to a new report by The Local Road Research Board (LRRB). For example, LRRB researchers found that many people mistakenly believe that the gas tax covers costs of local road maintenance.
Citizens care about specific problems like potholes and snow clearance, but large-scale issues are often dismissed. The costs of deferred maintenance or long-term planning may not seem immediately relevant, but problems will be more expensive and dangerous if dialogue does not commence.
Due to insufficient communication with elected officials and public administration, Minnesotans are commonly confused, apprehensive, or apathetic in their interaction with transportation decision-making. But with informed citizens, local governments could prioritize solutions that satisfy specific community needs.
Populations, traffic patterns, economic ventures, and recreational activities have changed since roads were first built. New environmentally friendly techniques have emerged. Safe accessibility for cyclists and pedestrians has become a major concern. In order for Minnesota’s neighborhoods to adapt, the public must engage in education and conversation about transportation policy challenges and proposed solutions.
Through community meetings, straightforward online information, focus groups, and media coverage, local leadership can share concerns and discuss possibilities with its constituents. If the public understands the needs and goals of road construction projects, traffic reorganization, or transportation taxes, support and resources will no longer be hindered by confusion or reluctance.
“It might enhance public trust and attention to [transportation issues] if they were more aware of the ways in which local public works leaders have introduced innovations and found efficiencies to keep up the roads even with heightened demands, increasing costs, or diminished resources,” the LRRB report reads.
Local officials and transportation engineers can work to build approachable education, dialogue, and policy solutions about such multi-faceted concerns. With increased engagement, the public will better advocate for sustainable change and repair.
Transportation systems help to define our communities, but they are largely neglected in public dialogue. Every Minnesotan deserves to play an informed role in shaping our transit landscape.
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Significant praise has been heaped on ridesharing services. Uber, Car2Go, HourCar and NiceRideMN, to name a few, are lauded for increasing transportation options. Each service adds another way to get from point A to B, making our multimodal system stronger. These networks run best when switching from one mode to another is easy and obvious.
Now, however, these services accept payment in different methods. Uber and Lyft charge through a smart phone application. Car2Go and HourCar have membership cards to unlock the vehicles; and NiceRideMN uses a credit card or a membership card. Each of these services uses a different system, making it challenging to switch from one to another. This makes our multi-modal network weaker. There should be one card that works across all platforms, so each mode is easily accessible. The Metro Transit Go-To cards can be that card.
Go-To cards already make for a more efficient public transportation system. They can be used as a monthly pass or as stored value, so no accidentally throwing out a needed transfer. With only a quick swipe needed for payment, boarding the bus is faster. When money is added to the card, an extra 10 percent is added, making taking the bus an even cheaper option than driving. With a solid track record of success, expanding Go-To cards to all the transportation options just makes sense.
The expansion would benefit many regular Go-To card users. Many high school students use a Go-To card everyday. Since 2013, all public school buses to high schools have been discontinued and replaced with Go-To passes. The collaboration between Met Transit and Minneapolis Public Schools gives each eligible student a Go-To card that provides rides between 5:00am and 10:00pm. Adding the other multi-modal options to the card improves access for these students. It facilitates students to take the bus to the library or a museum and take a NiceRide the last 5 blocks, making the city a classroom for all students.
Let’s expand Go-To cards to NiceRides and car-sharing services like Uber and HourCar. Adding Go-To cards to other transportation services would strengthen our multimodal transportation system helping people connect to destinations in a way that works for them.
Minnesota's "Queen Mother of Comedy," the late, great Merrilyn Belgum, used to crack about how tough it was to get old. "I can't see or hear," she'd say. "Thank God, I can still drive!"
I was reminded of this wry observation and its transportation policy implications when a Minnesota 2020 colleague alerted me to a recent Minnesota House Research report entitled "Older Drivers"—shortly before I was due for my driver's license renewal.
As someone who's doing really well for an old man on Medicare, I didn't know whether to take that as a hint or not. Regardless, I passed the vision test and was granted another four years behind the wheel.
As I've found so often in my Baby Boomer lifetime, I'm part of a serious trend. According to the report, the number of Minnesotans over the ages of both 65 and 85, respectively, is expected to double from 2010 levels by 2035. By 2030, 69 of the state's 87 counties will have an elderly population of more than 20 percent. In recent years, the traffic crash and fatality rates for older drivers has been declining, but the percentage of overall crashes involving us geezers has been rising.
Historically, crash rates are the highest among the drivers at each end of the age spectrum. Minnesota and most other states have attacked the problem for the young-'uns with a number of policy changes in recent years and continue to strengthen restrictions on them.
Similar measures targeting elders are few and far between. While youthful recklessness is implicated and addressed, there's been little response to the declining vision, hearing, cognitive ability, motor function and physical resilience that may come with advancing age.
In fact, Minnesota law specifically prohibits extra driving examinations based on age. A few states have required a new road test for older drivers, required doctors to report medical conditions that could impair driving and shortened the renewal cycle beyond a certain age. According to the House report, Minnesota mandates several renewal policies—a relatively short 4-year cycle and in-person application and vision tests—for all drivers regardless of age.
Our state does allow case-by-case evaluation of licensees based on reports of potential driving impediments received from family members, police or physicians. Still, a significant protection against seniors driving badly is just self-regulation, voluntary restriction of time behind the wheel, according to the report. An 88-year-old friend of mine has done just that, relying instead on his bicycle to get around his south Minneapolis haunts.
"The increase in older Minnesota drivers will likely continue to raise various policy questions," the House report concludes, noting that potential responses need not be limited to driving privileges alone. Attention should be paid as well to "the capacity and geographic distribution of other transportation options (such as transit service)," it adds.
And that's a refreshing step outside the box of autocentric thinking that permeates our culture. My city-dwelling friend can ride his bike or the bus to practically anywhere he needs to go. But greater percentages of the elderly live in Greater Minnesota, where distances are daunting, transit service is sparse and what exists is heavily used by older folks. Road crash and fatality rates also are much higher outside the Twin Cities. Minnesota is a national leader in providing rural transit, but it will need continuing improvements in that area as the population ages.
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 streets.mn—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
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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.
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.
Two new scientific studies offer a nice complementary perspective on our transportation choices and their often ignored consequences.
Start with a Minnesota Department of Health report on geographic concentrations of asthma. As summarized by Minnesota Public Radio, the worst place in the Twin Cities for the breathing disease is along Interstate Hwy. 94 in north Minneapolis.
While fumes from the freeway may not be the main cause of this finding -- dirty rental housing and higher rates of smoking among low-income residents of the area are also implicated -- tens of thousands of motor vehicles roaring by daily a short distance away certainly doesn't help. And for African-Americans and Native Americans, the Minnesotans most afflicted by asthma, claims of environmental racism in the routing of pollution-spewing highways gain strength.
Now consider an unrelated study from Salt Lake City, where concern over periodic choking air inversions along the Wasatch mountain front helped spur rail transit development in a conservative region on a scale that puts the progressive Twin Cities to shame. University of Utah researchers found that the TRAX University light rail line significantly reduced auto traffic, congestion and air emissions along a major city thoroughfare.
These outcomes occurred despite increased development in the corridor since the light rail launched in 1999, the researchers noted. "Without the University TRAX line, there would be at least 9,300 more cars per day ... and possibly as many as 21,700 additional cars," said the study leader, Prof. Reid Ewing. "The line avoids gridlock, as well as saves an additional 13 tons of toxic air pollutants [per day]. This is important knowledge for shaping future transportation policies."
Ewing also warned that his study "cannot guarantee that light rail transit would have the same effect on traffic at other locations." That said, the Utah line resembles the new Twin Cities Green Line in two important respects: serving a major university campus along a busy urban street corridor. Since its June 15 opening, the Green Line is showing strong ridership, increasing by 4,500 a day over the first week, when free rides were offered. Its projected 40,000 daily boardings by 2019 may be reached long before then.
Right now, we can only guess the effect on auto traffic along University and Washington Avenues linking the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns. But I'm betting the air beside the tracks is already easier and healthier to breathe.
With Congress still deadlocked over transportation funding as the Highway Trust Fund dips toward empty and the Minnesota Legislature putting off hard decisions on roads and transit until next year at the earliest, counties in the state increasingly are considering local-option sales taxes to pump up declining revenue streams.
Already, six Greater Minnesota counties have adopted sales taxes of up to one-half percentage point for transportation, Kirsti Marohn reports in the St. Cloud Times. Meanwhile, the Stearns and Brown county boards are looking into it. Most of the new money is likely to go for road work, although 2013 legislation also authorizes the levies for transit or any other transportation project.
At the same time, the conservative Center of the American Experiment has called for dedicating one-quarter percentage point of the state sales tax toward road and bridge maintenance and expansion. The think tank report authors, Fritz Knaak and Amy Roberts, emphasize, in bold type, that "this is not a recommendation to increase taxes." But typical of right-wing policy prescriptions, they offer no suggestions for plugging the $182 million annual hole the diversion would create in the state general fund, some of which finances transit operations.
A state sales tax for highways would further erode the user-pays principle for the mobility choices of an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans, most of them better off than non-drivers. But that notion seems more and more like a relic of the 20th century as policymakers resist angering folks at the gasoline pump. According to the conservative Tax Foundation, user fees and taxes pay less than 42 percent of Minnesota's state and local road costs. That's not much more than transit riders contribute in fares -- direct, visible costs as opposed to driving's veiled taxes that make it seem free and boost its much greater popularity.
Nonetheless, sales tax support for roads and bridges, honestly imposed and not peddled as a freebie, could be a positive development. It would accompany a similar levy for transit in the Twin Cities, likely reducing criticism of public support for an option that gets too little credit for its lack of the congestion, pollution and accident externalities of private motoring.
For many counties, a sales tax would dwarf the relative pittance 47 of them now collect from a $10-per-vehicle wheelage tax also authorized by the Legislature in 2013. Stearns County could reap up to $11.5 million a year, compared with $1.4 million from the wheelage tax. For regional trade centers outside the Twin Cities, it would spread costs beyond local residents' and businesses' property taxes to shoppers from surrounding counties, nearly all of them driving in.
As my MN2020 colleague Jeff Van Wychen told Marohn, sales taxes are no more regressive than the fuel and property taxes they would augment and would further spread out the costs of transportation's broad social and economic benefits. "For anything that has a regional impact like that, a local-option sales tax makes sense," he said.
Additionally, as larger units of government keep pushing to devolve vital functions to the county and local levels, sales taxes may be the only way to keep up transportation infrastructure and expand it as needed. For our mobile society, ignoring those duties isn't a responsible option.
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It's been four years since owners of the Thunderbird iron mine near Virginia, Minn., told state officials they will have to move Hwy. 53 out of the way to allow expansion of their taconite extraction operation. The state is supposed to relocate the so-called Main Street of the Iron Range by 2017 under terms of a 1960 easement agreement, but the Department of Transportation announced last week that it almost certainly can't meet the deadline.
Even now, no reroute decision has been made as engineers study options including bridging or filling in a 325-foot deep abandoned open pit as well as closing the highway for good (unlikely), buying out Cliffs Natural Resources' multimillion-dollar mineral rights (less likely) and paving right through existing mine operations (opposed by Cliffs).
John Myers of Forum News Services detailed the latest turns in this strange drama last week. Engineering tests of the bridge plan alone are costing $4 million, and whatever alternative is chosen is likely to exceed the project's $90 million budget, Myers reported. Only three-quarters of a mile of the four-lane highway is affected, but the reroute could stretch out much further. But one idea to skirt the highway far around Eveleth and Virginia was quickly scotched by opposition from roadside businesses.
Besides whisking general travelers between the Canadian border and Duluth, the highway gives hundreds of miners access to their workplace. Although the state hasn't paid more than a token $1 to the mine operators for use of their land for the past half-century, Cliffs has richly benefitted, too. Now, it says that unless the highway moves to allow access to buried ore, the company will be forced to shut down its taconite plant.
Has there ever been a starker example of the relationship -- part symbiotic, part adversarial -- between private industry and public transportation infrastructure? It's in everyone's interests to find an affordable solution that preserves both the miners' jobs and the travelers' route. Highway 53 needs a path forward, not more posturing and bickering.
Planners of a proposed high-speed passenger rail link between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minn., have narrowed their focus to eight possible routes out of 1,200 combinations originally considered. In general, the surviving options would connect downtown Rochester and the Mayo Clinic with St. Paul's Union Depot or Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, mostly along either U.S. Hwy. 52 or Hwy. 56.
Public meetings are scheduled late this month in Rochester, Inver Grove Heights and Kenyon to update progress on the project, dubbed Zip Rail and touted as offering "a convenient, cost effective, reliable and safe passenger rail transportation alternative that will meet forecasted population and economic growth, mobility demands in the corridor and connect intercity economic centers."
A 53-page "scoping document" issued Monday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation will be open to public comment through Aug. 6. It contains few specifics besides a goal of 45-to-50-minute service at 150 miles per hour or more with at most one intermediate stop in southern Dakota County. There's not even the hint of a cost estimate. The next major step, completion of preliminary engineering and Tier Two environmental studies, isn't expected until 2019.
As noted before in this space, more than a decade after its first feasibility study Zip Rail remains a very long shot for the foreseeable future. Even the project website calls it, "indeed a bold initiative."
No railroad line has existed between between Minnesota's two largest population centers since the 1960s, meaning that a costly, contentious process of securing a route through a virtual "flyover land" of southern Minnesota would be inevitable. And while there are stirrings of a U.S. renaissance for fast passenger trains, the real action has involved efforts to link much bigger city pairs -- San Francisco-Los Angeles, Dallas-Houston, and Orlando-Miami.
The latter two of those are being promoted by private interests, which has tamped down most ideological opposition from conservatives. The publicly funded California true high-speed project faces continued controversy and steep costs in the tens of billions of dollars. Other federally supported passenger rail improvements have involved shared freight tracks where top speeds can't top 125 m.p.h.
But the best hope for Zip Rail and all the other dreams of a passenger train revival may lie in the fate of All Aboard Florida, the Florida East Coast Industries subsidiary that expects to begin running 32 fast trains a day in 2016 over railbed laid more than a century ago by Henry Flagler. As I reported from sunny Florida last winter, the project has engendered strident anger in small towns along the way where the trains won't stop.
But, as Henry Grabar pointed out in an Atlantic Citylab blog, this bold initiative enjoys significant unique advantages. These include a $215 million state-funded terminal at the Orlando airport, also served by a new commuter rail line, and ownership of 15 acres of property prime for "value capture" development around stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. To boot, Florida tourism, the nation's richest, spurs 500 million trips a year between All Aboard Florida's destination cities.
Even with most of the 240 miles of right-of-way already in place, however, the project's cost is estimated at $2.5 billion, more than half to be financed with a federal loan. So it's easy to see why, according to David Levinson at the University of Minnesota, it's been more than 100 years since the last significant private investment in U.S. intercity passenger rail.
Grabar says a big question remains, "whether All Aboard Florida is the exception to private U.S. passenger rail or the new rule?" Its success or failure will weigh heavily on the prospects of public initiatives like Minnesota's Zip Rail, too.