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Expanding Transit for Minnesota

June 01, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

Minnesota's major metropolitan region is a sprawling one—the country's 16th most populous. The region's transit system, while not the most expansive, is growing and becoming more diverse because of recent investments in light rail and bus rapid transit.

The existing system's operations, however, have been targeted for significant budget cuts in the state legislature. A report from the Brookings Institution has revealed that access to jobs by transit needs significant improvement, which means that cuts to existing operations are not a step but a leap in the wrong direction.

The report, "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America" examines the top 100 metropolitan areas and the 371 transit systems that serve those areas. Brookings found that while 70 percent of metropolitan residents have access to transit, only 30 percent of metropolitan jobs can be accessed on transit in 90 minutes. This is both due to lack of investment in transit, as well as job decentralization. As communities have sprawled outwards from the major cities, jobs have often gone with them into vast gaps of transit service.

The Twin Cities ranked 39th out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas for combined transit coverage and job access, despite being the 16th most populous. Sixty-seven percent of working-age residents in the region live within three-quarters of a mile to transit, but only 30 percent of the region's jobs can be accessed within 90 minutes of riding transit. The region has sprawled significantly, partially because of its lack of restraining geographic boundaries.

Compounding this problem is the fact that several major corporate campuses have either started in or moved to suburban locations. Best Buy is headquarted in Richfield, Imation is headquartered in Oakdale, and 3M is headquartered in Maplewood, having moved out of St. Paul.

The region's unrestrained geography puts it at a disadvantage to other cities where density was necessitated by geography. Honolulu and Denver epitomize this necessity, and both rank predictably well (first and sixth, respectively). The unrestrained geography, however, does not excuse the sprawl of the Twin Cities.

Other cities have had more forward-looking policies regarding sprawl. A prime and oft-referenced example of this is Portland, Oregon. That metropolitan area has had strong regional planning, coupled with policies limiting sprawl. By no coincidence, it ranks 12th for transit coverage and job access, with 83 percent of residents close to transit and 40 percent of jobs accessible by 90 minutes of transit.

The solution is not to indiscriminately add more transit, however. As Alan Berube, research director at Brookings, argues, "you can have lots of transit, and still fail to reach a lot of regional jobs within a reasonable amount of time ... Conversely, you can have modest, unsexy transit and deliver workers from their homes to a majority of regional job centers efficiently."

He points to Chicago, which reaches 79 percent of its working-age residents but only provides access to 24 percent of the region's jobs and Tucson, which provides 73 percent coverage and access to an impressive 57 percent of its jobs.

Berube uses this example to argue that transportation planning should be better coordinated with housing and economic development. This is the argument behind the demand for more transit-oriented development and more transitways in metropolitan regions in general.

While the Twin Cities does have strong regional planning, current legislative efforts are attempting to 'rip the wiring' out of the region's transit system. Ripping the wiring out of the systems is exactly what Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Puentes warns against. He argues that transit is a lifeline, especially for low-income people, and points out that having a job isn't enough if you can't get to it.

The state legislature's final transportation budget bill of the session contained $109 million in cuts to the region's transit system. Governor Dayton vetoed the bill but cuts may still make it into the final bill in the legislature's special session. In his veto letter, Governor Dayton pointed to the positive effect transit has on "labor market efficiency, freeway performance, and air quality in the metro area" as well as its economic benefits.

The Brookings report pointed out a major problem, which needs multiple solutions across the board. We must invest and expand our transit, coordinating that expansion with focus on job access and transit-oriented development.

On a policy and personal side, we need to stop sprawling further and further outwards. Sprawl is making us dependent on cars, and stranding those who cannot drive. As the poverty rates rise rapidly in the suburbs, fewer low-income people will have access to transit when they need it most. We need to examine and change the way we build and plan all of our communities if we are going to make a Minnesota that has not only mobility, but also accessibility.

Photo credit: Doug Wallick, creative commons

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