Regular features: Charts of the Day this week are all about congestion: 7 Most Congested Corridors in the Metro, Percentage of Miles of Twin City Urban Freeway System Congestion, Twin Cities Freeway Congestion, INRIX Traffic Congestion Scorecard for Minneapolis. If charts don’t interest you, try the Sunday Sketch for a very personal look at the urban landscape; this week about the problem of cars in the visual landscape.
Big issue of the week: Transportation policy is an important topic in Minnesota right now with the Legislature in session and MoveMN lobbying strongly for their funding proposal. Move MN is a Good Compromise is Bill Lindeke’s follow up to his post last week calling MoveMN a Litmus test for pragmatism. Commenters continue to debate whether working within the current transportation funding structure is preferable (or possible) or whether more radical changes are needed.
Whether caused by MoveMN or not, it’s great to see discussion move beyond more money to systemic issues with transit (Lines On Our Map about the status quo…and what could be on the Future Transit Map), transportation equity (When Can You Ride Your Bike Up a Ladder?) and transportation funding.
From policy to project: Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck Revisited takes a stab at redesigning this intersection in advance of a March 25 meeting about Minneapolis’ proposed $9.1 million project to “improve the condition and operating efficiency of the roadway, and improve and expand upon multimodal opportunities for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit users.”
Round up: A bit more on transit: MetroTransit Factbook Number Crunching and Tell Metro Transit Your Thoughts on Concept Arterial BRT Shelters. Snow is still relevant in MN with Plowing: You’re Doing It Wrong critiques Fridley’s path-plowing standards. Bicycle infrastructure posts this week included Protected Intersections For Bicyclists (video) while Bicycle Infrastructure in Seville which kicks off a series on European cycling infrastructure by Kevin Krizek. There’s a plug for Lyft’s on demand ride-sharing in Minneapolis: Embrace 21st century transportation options and a video animation of Ryan’s Downtown East project.
Have a great week on the streets!
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Animation of development project for Downtown East by Ryan Companies.
Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.
Protected bike lanes are the latest approach US cities are taking to help their residents get around by bike. But these protected lanes lose their buffer separation at intersections, reducing the comfort and safety for people riding.
What the protected bike lane needs is the protected intersection.
This proposal for the George Mason University 2014 Cameron Rian Hays Outside the Box Competition presents a vision for a safe, clear intersection design that improves conditions for all users. Proper design of refuge islands, crossing position and signal timing can create a safe intersection that people of all ages and abilities would feel safe in.
Learn more online at ProtectedIntersection.com
Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.
The Powers of 10, by Charles and Ray Eames for IBM:
While the linkage to transportation and land use in Minnesota might appear tenuous, it shows what we look like at different scales. The film is “centered” on Chicago, but that’s just part of Greater, Greater Minnesota, an outer suburb of Minneapolis. Anyway, it’s a damn fine film.
When it’s a ladder of opportunity.
President Obama has talked a lot about ladders of opportunity, especially in the last year. Growing the middle class and easing access to economic security across racial and gender lines is a major aspect of his platform.
Tuesday morning, speaking at the 2014 National Bike Summit in Washington D.C., Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx cited data from the League of American Bicyclist’s report of last year that nearly a third of bike trips are made by people earning less than $30,000 annually. The average family making $50,000 or less per year spends 28% of its budget on housing…and a staggering 30% on transportation.
For many Americans, bicycles represent a crucial key to opportunity. Lower income workers are disproportionately likely to work off-peak shifts, times when access to public transportation is often limited or non-existent. For these individuals, cycling doesn’t represent a weekend hobby, complete with kit and cleats. It’s part of their livelihood.
As Sec. Foxx said on Tuesday, “This isn’t just an issue of recreation; it’s an issue of equality, bringing people together, expanding the middle class and helping people who are trying to get into the middle class. It’s an issue of making sure, when someone’s only or best option to get to work is a bike, that they have an option to ride it. When the President talks about ladders of opportunity, that’s what he’s talking about. Sometimes that ladder can be a bike path to a new job or a new school.”
Sec. Foxx urged the League, Summit attendees, and other bicycle advocates to get behind President Obama’s $302 billion transportation proposal, which was announced last week in St. Paul at the newly remodeled Union Depot. The proposal follows on the heels of a bill introduced by Rep. Albio Sires’ (NJ-D) in January. The New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act of 2014 would set aside $11 million in loan funding from the existing $1 billion Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program (already funded) for cycling and pedestrian related infrastructure improvements. The bill further requires that 25% of the funds be spent in “low income” communities.
I live near University, Frogtown, and downtown St. Paul. Even during this particularly and incredibly brutal Minnesota winter, I see people on bikes on a regular basis. Some of them are on fat bikes, or bikes with studded tires, fully kitted out with panniers and Vibram booties. But a lot of them are on beat-up old bikes. Sometimes they’re on the sidewalk. And the most specialized gear they’ve got might, might, be a pair of ski goggles.
Walker Angell recently wrote a fine post here on streets.mn about why bicycle commuting might be hitting a hard ceiling in the Twin Cities Metro. It’s a great post. I agree with 99.9% of it. But it’s important to remember there are folks out there for whom bike commuting isn’t a stylish trend or environmentally sound option that will help millennials Save the World. It’s the only mode of transportation they’ve got to get to work, and it can be a long climb.
This post starts a series for my newly launched 2014 EU BICI (European Union Bicycling Information Collection Initiative). Over the next months I am travelling to some of the EU’s most interesting cycling cities, including Cambridge, Berlin, Seville, Ferrara, Zurich, and the usual Northern EU suspects. Each city will have its own post based on personal observation, secondary data, and interviews with local officials (when available). My aim is to uncover insights about structural peculiarities that are endemic to each city’s cycling network, not just to report the usual statistics and generalizations. Individual posts will not make direct reference to transportation issues in Minnesota; however, the culmination of the series (likely in summer) will result in an integrative and summary piece to distill key lessons and apply them to cycling in the Twin Cities.
When one thinks about cycling in cities and Europe, all eyes turn north. But at least two cities within 80 km of the Mediterranean Sea—Seville (Spain) and Ferrara (Italy)—provide opportunities to avert our eyes south. Cycling and Ferrara have been married for more than a century (the next post). But this week’s entry, Seville, has made valiant cycling strides in just six years. Their strategy clearly borrows from the Dutch for inspiration (i.e., separate cycle paths appear to be the divine wisdom); and, their relative ‘overnight’ stardom deserves attention.
Almost all noteworthy cycling cities have taken an evolution strategy; they incrementally chip away. Seville is testament to the contrary: REvolutionary actions. Turning into the 21st century, cycling in Seville was all but non-existent (0.2% of trips via bike). Political swings aimed to change that; the newly elected parties aggressively carried cycling in their portfolio. They diverted €10M from various urban development surcharges and complemented it with €18M from the general transportation budget. Recasting Daniel Burnham’s quote toward bicycling (“make no small plans”), the growth of Seville’s network is what he envisioned. The city blazed a new system of bicycle facilities starting in 2007, most of them laid out in only 36 months. These are not the usual U.S. variety consisting of a stripe here and some directional signs there. They built a network of more than 150 km of bi-directional facilities—2.5 meters wide (mostly)—that crisscross all over town. The city carefully selected eight main routes to serve as the backbone to connect the historic center with outlying activity centers. These corridors benefited from raised crossings, additional barrier treatments from cars, and cycling-specific lighting features. From the start, connectivity of the system was a top priority and other routes backfilled to blanket the city.
The strategy for finding the space to install the network is exceptional: they pinched car traffic for 85% of it. Travel lanes were trimmed by one-half meter; street-side parking bays were angled to become parallel, gleaning another 2.5 meters along some routes. The city jettisoned car travel lanes as well as 2,600 parking spaces. The “Dutch inspired” result is a painted green system that is largely separated from auto traffic, at least on major roads. The network now parallels more than 11% of all roads in the city. Those aiming to fulfill the “Field of Dreams” quote can sleep better with the large-scale evidence from Seville’s “experiment.” In less than a decade, adding 130 km of bicycle infrastructure correlates with daily bike counts that rose from 5,000 in 2004 to ~72,000 today. Current cycling mode share is just shy of 10%
The aggressive network infrastructure coincided well with the global bike-sharing craze, of which Seville was a JCDecaux pioneer. Starting from scratch in July of 2007, it has grown to 2,600 bikes spread over 260 stations with 5,000 parking spaces. Reaching its peak of 60,000 users in 2009, the system seems to have stabilized with 52,000 users who make 17,000 bike rentals per day. The garage 10km out of town serves as ground zero for the system, performing 20 ‘significant’ bike repairs ‘in house’ per day—those deemed too difficult for the 300 ‘field’ repairs per day.
Overall, the Guadalquivir River provided a solid and initial backbone for cycling. The mild climate (outside of July and August) allows comfortable riding and the flat terrain in every direction helps. Throw more than 58,000 university students into the mix and the key ingredients for cycling prosperity are already there. But in terms of size and density, Seville strikes a good balance. The city is big enough—a population less than 3/4 million—to have common distances that are not easily traversed by foot; density hovers around 20 people per acre. The compact historical center has no space for cycling facilities; tastefully placed silver medallions—with a bicycle imprint—suggest bike routes via the Cathedral and other historic areas. But it is the ratio of a relatively small historic core relative to the size of the rest of the city that works in its favor. Immediately outside the historical center, the wide rights-of-way are exactly what allows the network to shine (these are wide relative to what I have been living with in Italy for the past 8 months).
The aggressive infrastructure commitments, however, are now requiring attention—which is harder to glean from the new political leadership. The city council initially restricted non-resident auto access to the history center (thereby halving the number of cars); the new guard, however, has relaxed these restrictions, which lessens positive impact for cycling. The initially projected publicity revenues from the bike-sharing system are down, thereby suggesting financial stress. Cracks in the pavement, traffic signal repairs, and bike racks cost 300K €/year; 12% of that is devoted exclusively to keeping the green paint fresh. The green was considered crucial to make the initial splash; I question its existing value now and some around city hall are apparently doing the same. It is harder to find the resources to traverse difficult crossings, and add bicycle parking, launch public education campaigns.
The experiences in Seville suggest at least two takeaways. First, most Americans assume that European settings are inherently more bicycling friendly (e.g., tax structures and the sort discourage auto use). Closer to the Mediterranean Sea, however, bicycling’s climb for utilitarian travel becomes steeper, not always owing to terrain. Cultural hurdles and rising incomes get in the way. Second, Seville provides a glimpse for how a city dominated a decade ago above by cars and a burgeoning driving mentality (at least outside the historic center) can make aggressive in-roads for cycling.
 Much thanks to Virginio Moreno (Head of projects and works), Jorge Almazan Fernandez de Bobadilla (Director Tecnico, Genercia de Urbanismo), and Javier Paudo (Head of the bike planning department) for sharing their perspectives and relevant data and providing a tour of the garage for bike-sharing system.
 Bertolini, Luca (2007). Evolutionary urban transportation planning: an exploration. Environment and Planning A. 39: 1998-2019.
 In 2001 the government of Seville was steered by a coalition PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español)-PA (Partido Andalucista). In 2006-2007, when 77 km of the main network of cycle routes were built, the coalition was comprised of PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español)-IU (Izquierda Unida).
 Where did the space come from, see 85% number reported in: Alliance for Bicycling and Walking (2012). BICYCLING AND WALKING IN THE UNITED STATES. BENCHMARKING REPORT, case study featuring Seville. pages 157-159. Apparently the other 15% came from pedestrian space.
 Many travel lanes were formerly 3.5 meters wide and they were trimmed to 3.0 or 2.9 meters
 A change from 4.5 meters to 2.0 meters.
 The early facilities were painted red but in 2005 the city put the color up for popular vote; the residents preferred green.
 Almost 11% of the roads, see: Virginio A. Moreno Lopez (2012). The first step in creating bicycle infrastructure—the case of Seville by bike. In the book: Cyclists and Cycling Around the World: Creating Liveable and Bikeable Cities. Edited by Juan Carlos Dextre, Mike Hughes, and Lotte Bech. Fondo Editorial.
 Field of Dreams quote: “If you build it, he will come.”
 Interview on February 8, 2014 with Virginio Moreno (Head of projects and works), Jorge Almazan Fernandez de Bobadilla (Director Tecnico, Genercia de Urbanismo), and Javier Paudo (Head of the bike planning department).
 For example, Cordoba, more than 100 km down the road, could have a similar cycling flair. However, its smaller nature suggests shorter travel distances that are more amenable by foot; the inherent need for cycling is less.
A population is of 702,000 residents are spread across 141.3 km2 for a density of 4,968 hab/km2.
This chart (or should we say charts) from the Inrix Scorecard shows the diurnal, weekly, monthly, and trend levels from INRIX. There is more congestion in the morning and especially the evening. Thursday evening gets more traffic than any other day, though Friday afternoon is higher, and Tuesday wins the morning. It’s all very proprietary, but traffic congestion overall seems to be hovering pretty constant between 2010 and 2013.
At any rate, Minneapolis comes in at 16th (Yay, we have traffic, we are not dying [like some other Midwestern cities we could name]) (Boo, we have traffic), which is not surprising given it is arguably the 13th largest metro area in the US (it all depends on definitions).
I hate to do this to everyone because I feel like I am overpromising and under delivering (I am), but Friday’s post on “winners and losers” in the Strong Towns transportation finance structure is going to have to wait. Not only am I too exhausted to write after spending every night this week up late putting together the prior 9,400+ words, but I’m heading out of town for a while and have been too swamped getting things buttoned up to do today's post justice.
Some of the posts next week will open up this dialog a little bit more, provide some different voices and perspective. That is a good thing. While the feedback I received this week (at least from those that weren’t calling me a naïve idiot) affirmed that, at least, my proposals were thoughtful, I don’t assert that I have the perfect solution. Far from it. Consistent with the Strong Towns approach, we need to have some shared values and principles, but then we need to not be afraid to try things and see what works. Little bets.
For those that have disparaged the proposal I put forward – and understand that anytime you put forward a concrete idea, people attack it, even if they obviously haven’t bothered to read it – I will acknowledge that I tend more to the idealist side of the ledger than the realpolitik. I’ve said all along that the Move MN proposal is good politics. It would take tremendous leadership to propose something truly comprehensive, complex and – quite frankly – as challenging to our institutional inertia as my proposal is. We don’t have that kind of leadership, and even if we did, that kind of proposal is generally only possible during a time of crisis.
One might think that a projected $50 billion transportation shortfall presents a time of crisis, but alas, we are still prosperous enough to be able to ignore the core financial problems we face. That may persist, perhaps even for some time, but the inevitable mathematics of overwhelming liabilities will collide with increasing costs and decreasing demand to create the crisis. There will almost certainly be an trigger event – something similar to the housing correction of 2008 – that we will be able to blame our misfortune on, even though the occurrence of such an event is predictable, if not precisely identifiable in advance.
Our economy is incredibly fragile. Our approach to transportation funding is incredibly fragile. The Move MN proposal will make the system more fragile, not less. Fragile systems eventually break. It is really that simple.
So when that trigger happens and the crisis comes, instead of there being only the tired coalition of “more versus less,” there will be another, credible alternative to consider. Between now and then, I want to sharpen and refine the ideas put forward this week. And I want to get them in the hands of true leaders – all across the country – who can step up and inspire people at every level when the opportunity presents itself. That time is coming.
I’m personally deeply offended by the Move MN proposal. A wholesale tax on gasoline is as disingenuous as it is crafty. That it is wrapped in a slick PR campaign, and all the right insider tradeoffs, all heretofore unquestioned by major media outlets, only intensifies my frustration. The broad coalition of vested interests – whether they directly benefit from more spending or simply by being players with a seat at the table – represents everything that I believe is wrong with government today. They will surely win the approval they desire. It is not a good outcome for Minnesota.
Someone emailed me and said, “Chuck, I just want a train.” I get that. We live in a country where, through a complex set of financial circumstances, we created an illusion of wealth that has conditioned us to think big. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need big thinkers with big ideas. And if your big idea is a train, you’ve been in the intellectual wilderness a long time. I understand the impulse that makes you want to embrace a deal – any deal – that gets you that train now.
I have a big idea too. I want to change this country. Make it stronger. Healthier. More prosperous for everyone. I want to transform our governments, our businesses and our neighborhoods. I want a nation in a self-perpetuating cycle of improvement, a Zen state between pleasure and pain, where wealth is not a byproduct of efficiency, but of strength. Real, enduring strength. The kind that doesn’t show up in the GDP report but instead can be found in the generosity, contentment and humility of our people. That’s what I want. That’s my train.
There is no coalition for that. There’s just me.
So I write. That’s what I do. First it was for myself, to help me deal with a world that didn’t work as I thought it should. Then a handful of people tuned in. Now it is tens of thousands of different people each month, a number that continues to grow at rates that astonish me. Nobody is going to give it to me as part of a political bargain, a way to secure my support, but who’s to say that someday – slowly and surely – I won’t get my train.
And even if I don’t, at least I’ll know that the progress we have made here at Strong Towns is real. There is no illusion in the slow, incremental growth this movement has experienced. The results of countless hours of hard work won’t simply disappear. It can’t be taken away.
Ultimately, that’s the difference between your train and mine. And it is the one, true key to understanding how to build a strong town.
A World Class Transportation System
- Day 5: An analysis of winners and losers (coming soon)
Minneapolis is almost one step closer to joining the 21st century. After months of dragging its feet, it should opt to do the inevitable: allow Lyft drivers to pick-up people within its borders. Well, the City is in the progress of making that happen.
It was 2004. I remember looking in awe at the price tag of college textbooks: $100 for an introductory of macroeconomics textbook? I begrudgingly bought the book – a used copy no less – from the college bookstore and proceeded to use it (maybe) a dozen times throughout the semester. At the semester’s end, I brought it to book buy-backs only to find they’d upgraded to a new edition and weren’t buying back copies.
Shit. I remember feeling cheated. Like, the system was rigged.
Upon the recommendation of a friend (thanks Adam!), I decided to check out Amazon.com. I listed the book and sold it for like $75. I didn’t make money on the deal, but it was better than the alternative. Eventually I started selling my old textbooks. When that wasn’t enough, my friend and I noticed the college bookstore would discard literally hundreds of “outdated” textbooks each month on a table with a sign that read, “free books.”
We’d grab our backpacks and laundry baskets, fill them up and list everything on Amazon. The college provided free packing materials at the time, so our cost was virtually nothing. I made around $3,500 the first semester and a couple thousand the following semester before the University started donating to Books for Africa.
To this day, I still sell books on Amazon. While my margins aren’t as big as they once were, I still capture value from something that I would never have prior to Amazon. The downside to all of this is that me – and countless hundreds of thousands like me – are putting stores out of business.
Technology disrupted the traditional marketplace. Cities can regulate against change, but here’s the catch: they can’t be ignored for long.
Lyft. Uber. Sidecar. Airbnb. These are technological disruptions to the status quo that cities are struggling to handle. While other reasons are often cited, this delay often comes down to money, and who gets it. For example; car services; while cities don’t balance a budget on taxi cab fees or taxes, the revenue they generate is not insignificant. When it comes to App-based ride-sharing services, cities like Minneapolis (or Seattle and even Paris) get little in the way of revenue.
Getting started in the taxi business can be expensive. In Seattle, getting started will cost you at least $50,000 for a license. In New York City, a “medallion” can run upwards of $1 million. The cost in Minneapolis is more sane, but the number of taxi licenses are limited. At best, it’s protectionism by keeping the old guard propped up under the disguise of safety At worst, it creates scarcity and a monopoly develops. [Note: If anyone in the process is getting pinched, it's likely taxi drivers who are subject to regulations and an out-dated "medallion" system. They aren't paid well, need to jump through all sorts of loops, have a dangerous job and little job security].
I can’t remember the last time I was happy about taking a taxi. If your cab shows up, the experience usually goes like this: it shows up late, the backseat is messy, the ride costs too much, the driver won’t take a credit card and insists his machine is broken and doesn’t have proper change.
I’ve used Lyft a handful of times, and it is, hands down, a superior service. It’s more reliable, more affordable and more comfortable. Unless given no other alternatives, I will likely never take a taxi again.
In many regards, Lyft is doing what Amazon did in the mid 2000s: it creates harm to the establishment for the benefit of the masses. Taxi cab drivers will need to either adapt or risk having to find a new job. The upside is that a lot of people like me can make $200 on a Friday shuttling people around. The downside is that people with full-time jobs in that industry are without one. It’s benefit to the many with little regard for the few.
These new services aren’t going to solve our transportation woes, but they are another tool in the toolkit. If a weekly Lyft ride helps just ten people ditch their own car, then I say it’s probably worth it.
Airbnb is in the same. While I haven’t had many negative experiences staying in hotels, they get expensive after a few days. If you need a place for 4 or 5 days, hotel price tag can add up. I was in Louisville last October, stayed in a loft with a few others for an extended weekend and my bill was a $110. That’s not bad. It was as nice as a Holiday Inn, but $250 cheaper.
The tax implication: the City of Louisville gets nothing. If I stayed at the Holiday Inn, they’d be getting a lot more (hospitality taxes are usually high – upwards of 13 percent). Louisville got nothing, but a person willing share a spacious loft gets $660 for an extended weekend. That helps cover the mortgage, homeowner association fees, etc. There’s some benefit there, but from the prescriptive of local government, it’s very indirect.
Here is the technological disruption that is occurring: direct vs. indirect economic benefit.
Every book I’ve sold on Amazon is a book that would otherwise have been sold elsewhere. Instead of someone buying it at a bricks-and-mortar establishment that provides jobs and pays taxes, they’ve chosen to save a little and put $10 in my pocket. It’s a system that has drastically effected a small number of people, but marginally benefited a great number of people.
The response isn’t to ignore, but to embrace. Update the city code, and in the meantime, also make sure taxi drivers aren’t being pinched in the process. Make Lyft, Uber and Sidecar viable, but also make it easy to be a traditional taxi cab driver. If this happens, there is a space in the marketplace for everyone.
Downtown Minneapolis is surrounded by a moat. On one side, the city abuts actual water – the Mississippi River. The City and Park Board have done a good job of making that part of Downtown a welcoming and attractive place: The Stone Arch Bridge connects downtown to NorthEast, and walking paths, bikeways, and green space line the riverfront.
The other three sides of downtown are cut off from the rest of the city by highways and by the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck. These areas are less attractive. These man-made barriers dissuade potential downtown visitors from heading to or passing through what should be a focal point of our city.
There is some small degree of hope on the horizon: the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck is due for a make-over. The feds awarded the project $7.3 million and the City of Minneapolis will host a public open house on March 25 at the Walker Art Center.
The city’s project page for the bottleneck redesign states that project goals are to “improve pedestrian crossing[s]. . . rebuild traffic signal[s], improve pedestrian and bicycle crossing[s] and improve sidewalk[s]” at various intersections. It appears as though the city will leave the general shape of the bottleneck intact.
The bottleneck zone already includes some spots that, in isolation, could be considered nice bicycle and pedestrian facilities. For example, the east side of the bottleneck features a two way greenway and a separate pedestrian sidewalk. Nevertheless, walking from Loring Park to the Wedge Co-op is a generally miserable experience because 11 lanes of cars are whizzing by and because a respectable segment of the walk takes you under a highway.
The bottleneck needs a complete overhaul. It should be a place that is pleasant to walk, not just safe according to a formula. It is one of the primary gateways to downtown and should be treated as such.
Previous streets.mn posts proposed various redesigns for the area. With a public meeting just a few weeks away, the time is ripe to revisit this conversation. In this spirit, I offer a non-engineer’s idea for bottleneck reconstruction.
The bottleneck currently looks like this on google maps:
The tangle of overlapping streets/stroads and on- and off-ramps is a mess from a pedestrian’s point of view, with streets undulating over and under each other. However, if you were to knock down all the overpasses and smooth out the Hennepin Avenue dip between Franklin and the center of the bottleneck, the land does not actually vary in elevation all that much from the south to north. Therefore, it appears as though the city could construct a large roundabout in the area.
Which takes me to these three visuals:
The top image is my roundabout vision for the bottleneck (no computer generated images here. . .). There are admittedly some issues with this idea which I have not worked out. First and foremost, could Lyndale be sent off as its own two way street on the north side of the roundabout? This would be an issue once Lyndale reached the Dunwoody Blvd. intersection – the current southbound Lyndale segment (on the west side of 94) is not wide enough for two way traffic. Lyndale and Hennepin could of course remain as they are north of the roundabout, but I liked the idea of giving those avenues some autonomy.
Next, I wonder if a highway on-ramp and off-ramp have ever entered and exited from a roundabout. I cannot think of a reason this would not work, but can certainly imagine some pushback.
The next two images are what I did to gut check the roundabout idea. The first image is a to-scale cut out of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, NY taped onto the bottleneck. It fits. The next image is of Columbus Circle taped onto the bottleneck. It also fits.
Grand Army Plaza and Columbus Circle appear to have similar traffic counts as the bottleneck. It is a little hard to determine the traffic counts in each of these areas (the City of Minneapolis claims the bottleneck hosts about 50,000 vehicles a day). However, you can get a sense of scale by comparing the traffic counts of all the streets that enter and exit the roundabout or bottleneck area.
The counts for the bottleneck are as follows: 15,334; 8,587; 7, 527; 8,440; 3,832; 32,261; 29,613; and 21,624.
The counts for Grand Army Plaza are as follows: 46,885; 29,407; 15,242; 42,057; 8,661; and 13,308.
The counts for Columbus Circle are as follows: 19,675; 37,934; 19,675; 34,713.
Again, these are all the traffic counts on all the streets and ramps going in and out of the respective roundabouts and bottleneck (I skipped counts that were in the middle of the roundabout or bottleneck for consistency). Thus, many cars are counted twice (once as they enter the bottleneck, and once as they leave). It is very rough but, as stated earlier, gives some basis for comparison.
Assuming a roundabout could work in the bottleneck location, it could become a wonderful gateway to the city. The pedestrian and bicycle experience would be improved because people would travel next to five or so lanes of traffic instead of 11, and because the tangle of bridged ramps and flyovers would disappear. In addition, the center of the roundabout could be given to the Walker Art Center, which sits on top of the bottleneck. Imagine an enormous sculpture framed against the downtown skyline, welcoming people to downtown or to the Uptown area, depending on the direction of travel.
I fear that if the Minneapolis spends $10 million on bottleneck enhancements in the coming couple years, the city will put off meaningful work on the area for decades. The bottleneck does not have to be miserable – it could even be iconic. But a few improved pedestrian and bicycle crossings will not solve the bottleneck’s problems.
Let’s expand on Walker’s article about the bone-shaking paths we’re subjected to walking and riding in winter…
My question is: if a city has a plowing policy for paths, but not a “bare path” policy, is it worth it to plow the path at all?
I live in Fridley, and 2013-2014 is the first winter where the city has decided to plow the paths. Previously they would just plow what few sidewalks the city has. Neither the path or the sidewalk plowing are bare path, so I look at them both through the same lens.
I tried riding these partially plowed paths on a bike with studded tires. When the snow has not yet been compacted to ice (the bone-shaking Walker refers to), it is quite a bit like sand. Riding on sand is difficult. I’m not an accomplished cyclist, but I managed to make my way to the barber shop and back. I had to walk my bike up a slight incline once I lost my momentum. Starting to pedal on the slope was nearly impossible since all I did was spin the wheel, kick up snow, and dig myself further in.
Bare path plowing isn’t just for bikes. Being sure-footed goes a long way to avoid fatigue. In Fridley, most of the people I see walking walk in the street. Mississippi St. is Fridley’s main street and one of the few city streets with sidewalks. There the letter carrier prefers to walk in the road, which is a harrowing 4-lane, no-shoulder affair. He walks up every meticulously maintained suburban driveway to deliver mail to the door – there are no mailboxes on Mississippi St. He just prefers to avoid the city maintained/neglected sidewalk.
By maintaining a “bare pavement” street plowing policy while neglecting paths and sidewalks, the city is sending a clear message to pedestrians: don’t walk. Walking in the street sends that message right back to the city: If you’re not going to fully plow the area where I’d like to walk, I’ll walk where it is fully plowed.
I prefer the Minneapolis approach where the residential property owner is responsible for clearing the sidewalk. Residents get it. If you want your sidewalk to be usable, you have to clear the snow as close as you can to the surface. Then when the sun comes out, it can reach the surface to slightly warm it and melt what’s left.
So is the question really: is it better to have a half-hearted plowing policy or instead enlist the city’s most prevalent resource, its citizens, to help out?
Which is more effective, having the plowing crew of two dozen workers clearing the sidewalks or having thousands of residents pitching in? Like Chuck Marohn says, the top-down approach is orderly but dumb, employing citizens may be chaotic, but it is smart.
Today at 12:00 noon (central time zone) we are going to have a member chat on the Strong Towns Network. Chuck will be there to discuss this week’s blog series on transportation funding, the mobility report he is working on, the next Generation of the Curbside Chat and anything else members want to chat about.
If you are a member, just head on over to the Strong Towns Network. If you've not signed up on the Network site, just select $0 when you get to the paywall (you've already paid to support the movement -- thank you).
If you are not a member of Strong Towns, now is a great time to join. Just go to membership.strongtowns.org to participate in this and other events from Strong Towns.
If I were a legislator representing Saint Paul, at this point I’d remain on the fence about the Move MN legislation. I’d work hard to get MNDOT to commit to using revenue to maintain what we already have. I’d want them to promise to fix the thousand deficient bridges through the state before building any fancy fractal interchanges, freeway expansions past Maple Grove, or bypasses on the Iron Range. I’d try to get Metro Transit to commit to transit in places that already support walkable density before spending millions promoting development in roadside parking lots.
While I stand by the points I made in that piece, since then I’ve had a bunch of conversations with folks here at streets.mn and who work with the legislature. I guess I’ve kinda sorta changed my mind. The Move MN proposal seems like a good idea to me. In the abstract, it’s not perfect. But within the Kafkaesque world of US transit policy, this is a good deal.
Transit Funding is Always a Mess
The first reason why Move MN is a good deal is that US transit policy is a complete mish-mash. For roads, we’ve developed a massive Robert Moses ”lock box” of dedicated funds where top-down bureaucracies wield money and regulations with impunity. I hardly need to remind you of the million problems with the asphalt-industrial complex, but the key point is that DOTs don’t have to scrape together road money from the corners of governmental couch cushions. (At least not yet…)
Transit money, on the other hand, is crude legislative sausage. The course of true transit never did run smooth, and each metro area runs into a few intractable problems. The first is a constant struggle between jurisdictions. Big metros that cross state lines have particular difficulty (See Christie, Chris). Imagine having to compromise with Scott Walker every time you wanted to fund a new line! Luckily in Met Council Minnesota, county shenanigans aside, jurisdictions aren’t much of an issue.
The second big problem is the state vs. metro political divide. All cities deal with state legislatures that rarely give them power to raise taxes to pay for transit. New York and Chicago both struggle to pay for their aging (and effective) transit systems, and plans to raise money through tolling or taxes are routinely shot down by state lawmakers.
And those are the “good, urban, blue” states. Atlanta built its transit system with zero state money and little regional cooperation (and MARTA is half-assed as a result). The same is true for Arizona, Seattle, and Denver. LA is a mess. I could go on…
I suppose we’ve been lucky here in Minnesota that some state general fund money has gone to build our two light rail lines. I don’t know all the hairy details, but in general, our Metropolitan government system seems to get some statewide support when it needs it (e.g. the MVST money). That said, at the rate of one line per decade Minnesotans will be stuck it their cars for a long time.
Metro Taxing Autonomy is the Key
So how have all these places paid for their transit investments? In almost all cases, state legislatures have given metro areas some autonomy to raise their own taxes. Places like Denver, Indianapolis, and even the Carolinas have received “permission” by states to have hold transit referendums. Most of them pass, and these cities use area sales taxes to pay for transit investments.
I’m sure that the architects of the Move MN proposal have thought of this. Would the state legislature give the 5- or 7- county Metro permission to have a referendum for the .75¢ transit sales tax? If it did, would it pass?
One of the differences is that most of those cities are in the west or the sunbelt, where referendum politics is the norm. I’m guessing that Minnesota policymakers don’t want to go down that messy road, which can lead to all kinds of problematic outcomes. (Though we did reject the odious Voter ID law…) Instead, the “Minnesota way” is to have legislators make the decisions. And despite last minute back-room deals, I can live with that. We have the highest voter turnout in the country (though still too low), and Minnesotans should be proud of our (relatively) well-functioning government. (Just don’t get me started on the Vikings stadium.)
So we have compromise. The metro area gets to pass its regional transit sales tax without a referendum. And the bill raises a whole bunch of money for transit, biking, and walking while throwing a chunk of “gas” money into the pot for roads .
I haven’t shed my previous qualms about the bill. It’d be nice if the metro area could have taxing autonomy without having to compromise with unrelated road interests. (And I agree with Chuck that we need more regional and municipal control over our transportation decisions.) It’d be nice if MN-DOT stood by a “fix it first” policy instead of building new exurban freeways to nowhere. It’d be nice if our transit planners put light rail stops where the people are, and invested only in places that commit to density and walkability. It’d be nice if the lower-case ‘e’s on the Move MN website were shaped differently…
But I’ve spent a few days reading about transit funding in every other city in America, and I’ve yet to find my utopia. Relatively speaking, and despite the SWLRT fiasco, Minnesota has a decent institutional structure for transit investments. All we need now is a bit of freedom to fund our plans, and a smarter conversation about where to invest. The Move MN proposal is a good idea that would do a lot for Twin Cities’ transit. Lobby day is next week. Let’s make this happen.
Rank Metro Area Road From To Distance Freeflow Travel Time (min) Worst Peak Period Peak Travel Time (min) Peak Average Speed Peak Delay (min) Total Delay Per Year (hrs) Total Delay Per Year (days) Worst Day Hour Worst Day Hour Travel Time (min) Worst Day Hour Average Speed Worst Day Hour Delay (min) 42 Minneapolis I-94 WB MN-280/Exit 236 I-35W/11th St/Exit 233 4.09 4.3 PM 14.6 16.8 10.3 41.2 1.7 TH 5PM 23.1 10.6 18.7 81 Minneapolis I-35W SB I-94/17th Ave/11th Ave/Exit 17B Diamond Lake Rd/Exit 12B 7.67 8 PM 20.1 22.9 12.1 48.4 2 W 5PM 29.4 15.7 21.4 91 Minneapolis I-694 WB MN-49/Rice St/Exit 45 MN-51/Exit 42 3.88 3.8 PM 10.5 22.2 6.7 26.8 1.1 TH 5PM 17.9 13 14.2 121 Minneapolis MN-62 EB Gleason Rd CR-32/Penn Ave 4.55 4.7 PM 11.4 24 6.7 26.7 1.1 TH 5PM 17.5 15.6 12.9 127 Minneapolis I-494 WB 24th Ave/Exit 2 CR-32/Penn Ave/Exit 6 4.12 4.1 PM 9.8 25.2 5.7 22.9 1 TH 5PM 18.7 13.2 14.6 137 Minneapolis I-394 EB MN-100/Exit 5 US-12/Exit 8B 3.32 3.5 PM 8.3 24 4.8 19.4 0.8 TH 5PM 11.7 17.1 8.2 147 Minneapolis I-35W NB CR-C2/Exit 25A I-694/Exit 27 3.87 3.8 PM 8.5 27.4 4.7 18.9 0.8 TH 5PM 14.5 16.1 10.7
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Today’s Chart of the Day is an extract from a Table from Inrix (a traffic data provider), which shows the 7 most congested corridors in region. The rank is national. So our worst corridor is only the 42nd worst in the US.
By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
With his high-speed intercity passenger rail initiative sidetracked by conservative opposition, some of it warranted, and other factors such as deep difficulties with California's project before construction even begins, President Obama is said to be pivoting to an emphasis on urban light rail as his transportation legacy.
Proof of this came in his appearance last week in St. Paul to tout the Green Line slated to begin service in June. And the $302 billion, four-year transportation proposal he unveiled then is being hailed as a big boost for transit. It would increase transit capital grants by 70 percent to $72 billion while roads and bridges would get a 22 percent boost to $206 billion.
In autocentric America, the latter is probably a necessary ingredient of any politically feasible transportation plan. But before conservatives start complaining about more subsidies for transit, they should look in the mirror at the $63 billion in non-user funding Obama would use to plug a huge hole in the Highway Trust Fund, caused by fuel tax cuts on autopilot over 21 years of failure to raise the levy for inflation.
The "free money" for transportation would come from up to $150 billion in discounted taxes on repatriation of U.S. firms' foreign profits, a gimmick also advanced by conservative U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp. Camp's initiative, part of a sweeping tax reform plan, already got an icy reception from his fellow righties. "Blah, blah, blah" was House Speaker John Boehner's reaction. Don't expect any more love there for Obama's sortie. Every one of his infrastructure proposals since the 2009 stimulus has gone nowhere in Congress.
Something will happen in Washington, however, before the current federal transportation bill expires and the Trust Fund hits empty this fall. The most likely outcome is a status quo extension, similar to the current two-year legislation, with extra cash from who knows where. Obama's generosity to both roads and transit probably won't be a factor.
In some ways, that might be a good thing. As pointed out by Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik in a fascinating new blog, federal projections of increased driving that support arguments for more spending on roads have been wrong on the high side for years.
"The U.S. DOT's most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation's transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 to 1.85 percent each year through 2030," they report. "Just how out of whack is that? ... Vehicle travel hasn't increase by even 1 percent in any year since 2004 ...
"The new report uses for one of its scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999 ... In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn't even get the past right. The report 'projects' based on 2010 data that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone."
Phew! For the most wonkish among you, the authors provide links to relevant documentation, including the DOT report itself.
To be sure, U.S. driving did increase last year by 18.1 billion miles, which sounds impressive until you realize it was just 0.6 percent more than 2012, lagging a 0.7 percent rise in the population.
The latest Minnesota-specific DOT figures show a 2.1 percent decrease in VMT in December compared with December 2012.
Yes, that could have been skewed by lousy weather. But the long-term trend is clear, acknowledged even by the statistical wizards at the U.S. DOT: "A number of indicators point toward saturation in vehicle trips and vehicle miles of travel per person, with the peak of most per-person and per-household statistics occurring in 1995. Several factors could be possible explanations for this apparent saturation, such as the desire to limit the time spent in travel and replacing physical trips with electronic communication or online shopping."
Other factors figure in as well. Baby Boomers and their fading elders will increasingly be forced to give up their car keys in the face of time's toll, and they're not being replaced on the road by tech-savvy young adults. In place of diminished driving, transit, Amtrak, foot-powered transportation and, especially, intercity bus ridership are up.
According to a new DePaul University report, new discount operators like Megabus have nearly doubled their daily operations since 2010, saving their riders more than $1 billion a year with comfortable vehicles that allow Internet and cell phone connections, advantages over faster but five times costlier airline travel. Minnesota's nearly century-old Jefferson Lines is growing as well, up 8 percent in available seat-miles serving 65 towns and 25 colleges in the state.
"The car is our No. 1 competitor and it's an expense people can eliminate," Jefferson's Kevin Pursey told the Star Tribune. "For that kind of money, people are saying, 'I'm taking the bus.' "
Roads and bridges are important, too, not least as guideways for transit and intercity buses. Their chief deficiencies these days are in maintenance and repair of the entire aging system and expansion of targeted rural arteries. For urban mobility, smart highway congestion management and improved transit and nonmotorized alternatives are wiser choices than more and more driving lanes.
There's a small chance that next year's Congress will be more attuned to all these realities. Maybe then Obama could create a real legacy of fiscally sustainable transportation for the 21st century.
Minnesota is currently $50 billion short of what it will take to have a “competitive, world class transportation system”. The most serious proposals put forward do not come close to filling this gap. The latest – a proposal from the transportation coalition Move MN to impose some hidden taxes on fuel – is so feeble as to border on disingenuous. In a thoughtful and progressive state where the women are all strong, the men are all good looking and all the children are above average, our leadership is ready to embrace a third class approach, or worse. This is not leadership.
This week we have shown how our current discourse on transportation funding is a one-dimensional debate over just how much more we will spend on the same exact approach. At Strong Towns, we reject such a myopic vision. We envision an approach to funding transportation that builds the collective wealth of all Minnesotans and, in doing so, strengthens the state. We won’t settle for second rate.
Just because governments own, run and manage a system, they don’t magically become immune to the financial constraints imposed on all capital endeavors. We understand how our current transportation system – despite the generally good intentions of policymakers for the past several decades – has become desperately insolvent. Drawing inspiration from the financing of the transcontinental railroad network, we have put forth seven operating principles to govern the financing of a world class transportation system for Minnesota.
Today we describe one version of how those principles can be applied.
Funding Statewide Transportation through Mn/DOT
The State of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Transportation can strengthen the state and grow the collective wealth of Minnesotans by focusing on making high speed connections between productive places. This means moving people, goods and materials as quickly and efficiently as possible between economic centers (as opposed to within – for that, see the next section on city government).
Maintenance of the “base” interstate system should continue to be funded by federal gas tax dollars, supplemented, as needed, by the state gas tax. The “base” system includes two lanes in each direction with the outer lanes being the “base” lanes in areas where there are more than four lanes. This is the backbone of the communal system that taxpayers collectively fund. It is the transformative investment from which we all benefit.
Any lanes constructed beyond the base system should be subjected to congestion pricing, a mileage fee that would increase during times of high congestion and abate in slower times. The revenue from this fee will not be put into the general revenue stream of the state but instead be sequestered to fund maintenance of the extra capacity and, where needed, future expansion of the corridor (by whatever mode is most feasible). The fees charged should be managed so as to be sufficient to cover these extra costs.
Any access points off the interstate must be in the form of an interchange. Interchanges will be constructed at a rate of no more than one per every six miles outside of a municipality, or one per 20,000 individuals within a municipality. Where interchanges conform to this dispersion rate, their maintenance should be paid through the gas tax. Where there are extra interchanges, they should be subject to an access charge sufficient to cover their long term maintenance costs.
Any new interchanges should be funded through direct assessment (value capture) of benefitting property owners. The authority municipalities currently have to conduct direct assessments should be provided to Mn/DOT. Municipalities must give municipal consent (which requires a vote of the city council) for any new interchange.
Mn/DOT should commission, through the University of Minnesota, a project to quantify, track and monitor the real return (dollars in versus dollars out) of the interstate system.
- State Highways
Maintenance of the “base” state highway system should continue to be funded by federal gas tax dollars, supplemented, as needed, by the state gas tax. The “base” system includes one lane in each direction. As with the interstate system, this is the transformative investment from which we all benefit.
The same congestion pricing approach applied to the interstates should be applied to anything beyond the base state highway system.
Where interchanges are used on the state highway system, they should be constructed at the same rates as on the interstates. Where interchanges conform to this dispersion rate, their maintenance should be paid through the gas tax. Where there are extra interchanges, they should be subject to an access charge sufficient to cover their long term maintenance costs. Any new interchanges should be funded through direct assessment (value capture) of benefitting property owners.
Any private access to the state highway system outside of a municipality, or within a municipality where the speed limit is set at 30 mph or greater, should be subject to an annual access fee. The fee will be based on a ratio of the traffic on the highway versus the traffic accessing the highway, using methodology currently applied in signal placing and benefit/cost analysis. Under such a system, a farmer with a driveway on a remote state highway might pay $25 per year since the impact of a single home on a low volume roadway would be minimal. A strip mall on a congested corridor may pay thousands (or more) to offset the cost of slowing traffic on the highway. The access fee is compensation to the general taxpayer for degradation of the highway’s capacity, which the general taxpayer funded.
Within cities, in areas where the speed limit is less than 30 mph, all properties within half a mile of the highway (measured perpendicularly) shall have a highway surcharge on their property tax. The surcharge will be based on the value of the land (higher valued land will pay more, note it is the land only and not the total improved property value) and is meant to pay for (a) the added costs of constructing and maintaining an urban highway, and (b) compensation to the general taxpayer (who funded the system) for degradation to the highway’s capacity. It should likewise be sequestered for this purpose.
Municipal governments would have the option to assume the maintenance and overall responsibility for any state highway segment within their boundaries that has a speed limit less than 30 mph. It will be to their advantage to do so when land values rise sufficiently. Where this happens, the highway surcharge would be paid to the local government instead of the state. The state should establish a “turnback” fund with excess gas tax dollars (I anticipate there will be some) to facilitate conversion of these segments to true urban form before they are given over to the city for maintenance.
As a policy note: the legislature would need to repeal minimum speed requirements – currently set at 30 mph – from state statutes. This language is in the statutes primarily to address speed traps, but it has been used to justify over-engineering for as long as I’ve been working in this field.
I would like to eliminate the ridiculousness of traffic signals – a “solution” gone awry – but I’ll acknowledge that this may be too great a leap. My hope is that the access fees, and the raising of our collective intellect over time, would ultimately reduce the number of signalized intersections. There are very few intersections that improve their performance with a signal instead of some type of continuous flow improvement, such as a roundabout. (For a little more on the madness of traffic signals, you can read this post I wrote a while back.)
- Intercity Transit
I emphasize transit between cities here because funding transit within cities I reserve for municipal governments. We don’t have a lot of this today and what we do have tends to serve cornfields and the back of big box stores. Those sunk costs can’t likely be recouped and the cost of maintenance of those locations is not that great.
The capital costs of intercity transit needs to be funded by a combination of (1) value capture and (2) revenue from congestion pricing.
Value capture can be done by a direct assessment of property owners whose properties improve in value as a result of the construction of the station. Another option is to have Mn/DOT acquire the land directly adjacent to the proposed station using the same process currently used for right-of-way acquisition. As part of constructing the station, Mn/DOT would also be tasked with developing the property, the “profit” from which would be captured to pay for the station and any other related improvements. This would be a very complex process that would necessarily involve a partnership with the city and, through public bidding processes, private developers.
If congestion pricing along a highway corridor yields sufficient revenue (a reflection of demand) to justify transit improvements (high initial cost but ultimately lower costs per passenger per trip), then diverting that sequestered revenue to fund the capital costs of transit is a good investment.
Note that intercity transit has a sequential nature. Shuttle vans can provide great, low-cost transit between cities, building value on each end. After demand is established with vans, they can be replaced with a bus line to improve capacity and add even more value on each end. Finally, with enough demand on each end, rail becomes a feasible alternative using the financing mechanisms already described.
Operations and maintenance of intercity transit systems should be funded through the fare box.
Bridges on the interstate and state highway systems would be paid with the gas tax where they are part of the “base system” as previous defined. Where they are beyond the base system, a tolling mechanism shall be established to cover the repair, maintenance and replacement of the existing bridge. Fares collected shall be sequestered for that purpose.
Minnesota currently has too many bridges to maintain. Our friends in Stillwater notwithstanding, there is no justification for the construction of any new bridges on the interstate or state highway system (although one might argue that the new, $680 million Stillwater bridge is a replacement).
Bridges not on the interstate or state highway system shall become the sole responsibility of local governments. It is appalling that we have major bridges in disrepair, that we had a major bridge collapse, and yet the state somehow found significant sums of money to re-construct two bridges near my rural home, one which provides service to some very high-priced homes on an island. Priorities.
Finally, one-lane bridges that are currently rated “functionally obsolete” and are scheduled for replacement solely for that reason shall not be improved. Where traffic is sufficient to warrant more than one lane, the improvement may proceed, but we should improve no bridge that is functioning adequately simply because it doesn’t meet some theoretical standard.
- Freight, Air and Water
I wanted to include these simply to acknowledge that they are significant factors in the overall conversation, but I must admit that, besides airports where I have done some projects, I have limited knowledge of how we currently finance these modes of transport. My experience with airports has left me with a sour sense that, without a bizarre web of subsidies from the federal government, air travel would be limited to major airports. I don’t want to discount freight, air and water, but I don’t have a lot to add (and our statewide debate seems to be focusing on everything else as well).
- Complete Streets and Trails
I don’t propose anything in conjunction with the interstate system.
I think we can aspire to trails between cities but, right or wrong, they would currently be largely recreational. Where they are not recreational but designed for commuting between cities – as in parts of the Twin Cities Metro Area – they can and should be funded by local governments. Recreational trails can be funded with the recently passed statewide sales tax for arts and recreation.
I would require that any “rails to trails” corridors be required to retain the rail alignment in perpetuity as I want to reserve the right to have a “trails to rails” program when that need arises (which I suspect it will).
As many of you know, I’m not a fan of how state DOT’s implement complete streets, which would more properly be called “complete roads”. Cities have far more incentive – and should be given even more – to build financially productive places. Such places are strongly correlated to bike and pedestrian facilities.
Transportation Funding within City Government
Since the “Minnesota Miracle” of 1971, where the legislature ended most local taxes and fees in exchange for agreeing to fund a number of local obligations with statewide revenue, the relationship between the state and local governments has been one of parent/child. The parent (the state of Minnesota) may have made this bargain while aspiring to benevolence, but the relationship since has evolved into a controlling and dysfunctional version of the helicopter parent.
Author Judith Warner describes the helicopter parent as physically "hyper-present" but psychologically absent. The state currently tells cities what development fees it can charge, the detailed process they must go through to charge those fees and directs the limited ways in which those fees may be spent.
The state allows local governments only one tax – the perverse and destructive property tax – and even establishes limits on how much that tax can be increased in any given year. Every city, regardless of whether they are a county seat or a bedroom community, a center for mining or tourism, heavy into manufacturing or services, they all have the same tax structure.
Cities can’t adopt a local sales tax unless they complete the mandated process which includes (1) a direct tie to a specific capital project, (2) approval by a majority of local voters and (3) approval by our benevolent parent, the state legislature. Even when cities have met (1) and (2), the legislature has often withheld their approval.
Things might be different if the helicopter parent weren’t, in this case, such a deadbeat. Unfortunately, they are. Not only has the state repeatedly balanced their budget at the expense of local government aid (their part of the Minnesota Miracle grand bargain) and the school districts, but the entire reason I am writing this series is because the state has so dramatically messed up transportation funding, threatening all cities.
It’s time for daddy to let go.
When it comes to transportation, cities have the complex task of building productive places, the source of wealth that this entire exercise in government is meant to nurture and secure. Cities need to have every tool at their disposal, including:
- The option for a land value tax (instead of a property tax).
- The ability to create transportation districts (legislation currently pending)
- The ability to do direct assessments (they do have this presently).
- An option for a local sales tax.
- Impact fees for communal infrastructure.
- An option for other customized local taxes, such as extraction taxes (mining/logging areas), lodging taxes (tourism areas) and even a local income tax.
Cities need to be able to customize their local tax and fee structure to meet the pressing needs – transportation and otherwise – of their community.
There is only one tool I would limit: debt. Debt is like dynamite. You use it well, and you can clear away a lot of problems. Use it incorrectly, and you can blow a place up. To limit the ability of cities to blow themselves up, I would cap municipal debt service at 5% of the current year’s budget. I would allow that amount to climb to 10% only where voters approve (as they currently are asked to with the sales tax). I would place a hard cap at 10%.
Note that today the state puts no cap on debt. I’ve seen cities that are deeply caught up in the Growth Ponzi Scheme and now spend 50% of their budget (and rising) on debt service. I’ve seen cities where no council member is under 60 years old take on 30 and 40 year debt obligations. Both of those instances are inter-generationally immoral. The state does have an obligation to limit this type of irresponsibility, especially since –by limiting the range of options for cities – it is inducing the debt.
It is also important to briefly emphasize the difference between a land tax and a property tax. The former taxes the value of the land only (just the dirt) while the property tax includes both the land and the improvements that have been made. The land tax creates an incentive to improve one’s property (since only the land is taxed, taxes don’t increase when the property is improved) while the property tax creates an incentive to allow properties to decline (improving a property raises one’s taxes). If we want cities to be successful, if we want to build wealth within our state, we will stop discouraging people from improving their property.
In conjunction with giving cities more options for paying for transportation improvements –including streets, sidewalks, trails and transit – we need to repeal one of the most destructive forces acting on cities today: the state aid system.
Again, the dysfunctional helicopter parent provides resources to make transportation improvements, but those resources come with a litany of design standards, many of which are not compatible with creating value and building wealth throughout our communities. I’ll provide one example from my hometown that I’ve seen dozens of times around the state, particularly in the Twin Cities metro area.
H Street in Brainerd is 44-feet wide. It runs through one of the oldest, traditional neighborhoods in the city. Few people park along the street – the city’s code has encouraged off street parking – and the openness combines with the width of the street to give it a drag strip feel. Speeding is a problem, particularly near the school, and the city often sends a police officer out to park during pickup and drop off.
Last summer I was part of a private team that did a speed study. We tested the impact that narrowing driving lanes and adding bike lanes would have on speed. Our results suggested the change would reduce speeds dramatically. When it got to the city, the proposal was rejected, not because anyone opposed the idea or because anyone felt it wouldn’t work. It was opposed because this hyper-local street – a street that carries little traffic, all of it from the neighborhood – was built with state aid money and the state aid standards require wider lanes.
We’re legislating stupid, destructive outcomes. These are complex, nuanced situations that can’t be successfully micromanaged from a centralized state aid office. I could provide dozens of examples where state aid is the primary driver of stupid. This entire system should be shut down, the money that goes to cities today through the program given to them through a transportation block grant.
Tomorrow I’m going to talk in detail about winners and losers, but just to anticipate one question, I’d like to mention congestion. I’ve already explained how I would address congestion between cities with congestion pricing evening out demand and ultimately funding additional capacity. Since today we treat congestion within cities the same way (add capacity), you might be tempted to believe I think the same. You would be wrong.
The proper response to congestion between cities is to build capacity. The proper response to congestion within a city is to intensify land use. The former is simple, almost mechanical. The latter is extremely complex and nuanced. After decades of ripping cities apart in the fight against congestion, it is time we recognize congestion as our best friend in our effort to build wealth and prosperity.
Transportation Funding within County Government
When it comes to transportation and our current funding crisis, county highway departments are dinosaurs in search of a meteor. Their expertise lies in that unproductive wasteland between road and street, that stroad environment that neither moves cars quickly nor creates an environment of enduring value.
I can say with all conviction that I can’t think of a county transportation project worthy of public funding. I’m sure there are some, but I can’t identify one.
Show me a county road that provides a critical link between two important economic centers and I’ll show you a roadway that should be a state highway. Show me a county road that provides a platform for creating productive land use and I’ll show you a street that should be part of a city system.
The greatest value the county system provides, which is does at great expense, is a marginal improvement in travel time on the first and last miles of many trips. These segments are simply not worthy of our scarce resources.
I would provide counties all the tools I would provide cities with a couple of extra provisions. Funds collected within a municipality for transportation must be used for transportation within that municipality. Funds may not be transferred from within municipalities to subsidize the transportation desires of individuals or businesses located outside of the municipality (something nearly every country currently does that is self-destructive, not to mention nonsensical in so many ways).
With dismantling the state aid system for cities, I would also dismantle it for counties. But while I would give the cities the same money as a transportation earmark (sans design mandates), I would divert the county’s current share back to the state system. The county road system has little to no statewide value. Where it has regional value, let the region fund it.
Now before all you regional transit advocates get mad because projects like the Southwest Corridor are essentially county projects, let me give you two words: North Star. In the system I am proposing, North Star would have been built with two stops: Target Field and downtown St. Cloud. There would not have been any watered-down, regional coalition, each member of which needed their piece of the pie (and their ego massaged) only to get the project run out to a cornfield. A stop could have been added at any time in the future when that cornfield actually became a place and justified the investment. As we sit now, our grand regional coalition will never get that line to St. Cloud because they all got their stop already and what more do they need. Opportunity wasted.
Obviously anytime you put something like this out there, especially something this long (we’re over 9,300 words now for the week), there is a lot to talk about. For you Strong Towns members, don’t forget our member chat today where we can talk about this series and more. If you’re not yet a member, it’s never too late to sign up.
- Friday: Winners, losers and why it matters.
This week at Strong Towns we are focusing on Minnesota's transportation funding problem. As we do that, the Minnesota Transportation Conference is happening right now in Bloomington, MN. I had a chance to browse their program and came away a little depressed.
Here's some of the sadder sounding sessions:
- Session 1: Building Transportation Funding Support in Minnesota (put on by the Ministry of Propaganda)
- Session 27: Transportation: A Driving Force for Economic Development (for those who consider Mountain Dew A Driving Force for Physical Development)
- Session 34: ITS: Improving Traffic Flow and Safety (because there is nothing that makes a place safer than getting those cars moving faster)
At the beginning, attendees are given the self-affirming, "rah rah" talk about why they are so important to the future of America, despite being so under appreciated by miserly taxpayers, and it isn't until the end when those who remain are confronted with a clear challenge to their institutional dogma.
- Luncheon and Plenary Session: Why Future Trends in Transportation Demand Unlearning
I'm assuming that means unlearning of past practices, not why we should unlearn what we know about future trends (although I would not be shocked if it was a session on how to hold strong in the face of uncomfortable data).
So here's the deal. I'd like our readers to suggest sessions for next year's transportation conference. Use the comments section or post them on our Facebook page. For the best three -- and I'm not sure how I'll judge that, but I suspect it will be clear -- I'm going to give a copy of my upcoming book, MoneyHall.
We'll collect the suggestions and forward them to the Ministry of Propaganda for their consideration.
If you'd like to follow the proceedings (and maybe offer some friendly feedback), their Twitter hashtag is #MNTC2014.
This graph shows the percentage of congested directional miles on the MnDOT managed freeway system for the Twin Cities metro area, from the Metropolitan Freeway System 2012 Congestion Report. The trend lines show the difficulties with extrapolation, as choosing different bases will produce widely different trends. The 10 year trend is essentially flat, projecting a 2030 value the same as today, while the five year trend (which starts at the nadir of the recession) projects huge increases.
Transitioning to a new approach means starting where we are today – in a terrible financial mess – and applying a new set of shared principles to get us where we want to be. I can’t pretend to speak for all Minnesotans, but if I were the transportation commissioner or were advising the governor/legislature on these issues, here are seven new operating principles that I would apply to help us deal with this crisis. These operating principles address the core financial problems of our current system and present a new way of looking at transportation funding that, I believe, could be understood and accepted by most Minnesotans.
This Thursday at 12:00 noon (central time zone) we are going to have a member chat on the Strong Towns Network. Chuck will be there to discuss this week’s blog series on transportation funding, the mobility report he is working on, the next Generation of the Curbside Chat and anything else members want to chat about.
Sign up, dear Members, and we’ll make sure you have a front row seat to this informal chat session.Click here to register.
If you are not a member of Strong Towns, now is a great time to join. Just go to membership.strongtowns.org to participate in this and other events from Strong Towns.