Minnesota's Transit Climate Change – The value of communicating benefits and getting policies right

During graduate school at the Humphrey School of Public Policy & Affairs I was awakened to the possibilities, connections and importance of transportation planning, design and service to creating socially vibrant, economically strong and connected communities. It has felt fitting then that I’ve spent a good portion of the past year working in the Twin Cities to advance regional support for transit and development within emerging corridors. Over the past decade the Twin Cities has experienced a profound transit climate change. I recall debating with professors whether or not fixed-guideway transit had a future in Minnesota. Today, the answer is obvious and from bus rapid transit to commuter rail to light rail and streetcar the Twin Cities is seeking to catch up to other regions who have invested in a transit future to attract jobs, workers and talent.

Transit is not cheap, and so it’s no surprise that those of us in the industry spend a fair amount of time working to figure out how to finance its expansion in a time of declining traditional public resources. But money is not the only barrier to transit investment or to supporting development of new housing, job centers, schools or community facilities along transit-served corridors. Often times two other key ingredients are required for a transit climate change: effectively communicating the benefits of transit, and removing administrative barriers to development. The beauty of these two are that they cost relatively little, and can be game changers for the short and long-term.

Yes, Minnesota has a cold climate but that hasn't stopped people from choosing transit and the Met Council from supporting TOD (Photo: MZimmerman 2013)

Yes, Minnesota has a cold climate but that hasn't stopped people from choosing transit and the Met Council from supporting TOD (Photo: MZimmerman 2013)

Over the past few weeks the Twin Cities has made substantial progress, and MZ Strategies has been honored to directly support local leaders in developing each of the following:

  • On November 13, the Metropolitan Council adopted its first ever Transit Oriented Development Policy. The significance of this step is that it signifies the shift by the regional government, MPO and transit provider to actively support development and investments that provide people with better and more transportation choices using all of the tools at its disposal. As noted in media coverage of the policy, the Council has also established a TOD Office to make sure that development potential plays a role in transit planning. The Policy and Office are the first implementation steps resulting from a TOD Strategic Plan approved by the Council this past summer. Next up will be the roll-out of a database to track regional TOD development and a TOD Prioritization tool to help public and private sector players better understand development potential, market dynamics and investment priorities. This type of strategic research, data development, stakeholder outreach, and internal coordination all help position regions to make the best use of public resources and leverage the private market.

  • The result? More development activity and a better understanding of the impacts from transit investment. Capturing and conveying these impacts is critical to building broad public support, and informing future planning and investment decisions. This week a McKnight Foundation-sponsored synthesis prepared of nine studies from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies reaffirms the many economic and societal benefits of investing in transit. Among the key findings reported in coverage by the Star Tribune is how mass transit can improve the lives of low-wage earners providing affordable accessible to regional job and educational opportunities.