Streets.mn Voter Guide – Ben Schweigert

Here’s part three in our series of Voter Guides for the open seat in Hennepin County’s 3rd District.

1.) As a Hennepin County Commissioner, what would be your top transportation or land use priority?

I want a future for our county where it’s easier for us to use our cars less. This election gives us an opportunity to think about what kind of future we want and what policy choices we need to make now to bring that future about. More and more people today want to live in walkable neighborhoods and to get around without using personal cars. These cultural trends give us the chance to build a more sustainable future, and policymakers should seize that opportunity with both hands. I’m committed to doing that.

All of our county’s transportation planning and investment decisions should be guided by these principles. That includes decisions about big infrastructure projects, planning of bike routes, and development around transit stations. It also includes the numerous small decisions we make every time that we do work on our streets. I’m committed to good design decisions that leave our county roads more friendly to pedestrians, bikes, and neighborhoods. The county has already begun to embrace this approach through its complete streets policy, and I want to take the next step through new design standards that can implement this policy.

To make these policies effective, we’ll have to help the county do a better job working with itself. We need to bridge the gaps between the county’s Housing, Community Works, and Transit Department, which often leads on policy, and the County Transportation Department, which is ultimately responsible for implementing the complete streets policy. As citizens, we want a transportation system where different ways of getting around function together seamlessly, and the county agencies that manage these different transportation modes should work together just as smoothly.

2.) Hennepin County includes rolling farmland near the Crow River and fifty story skyscrapers near the Mississippi River. What strategies would you use to reconcile the competing needs of these very different constituencies and their representatives on the county commission?

As county commissioner, I will be a strong advocate for Minneapolis and Saint Louis Park, and I’m looking forward to working together with other commissioners who will advocate equally strongly for their constituents. As we form a common plan for investments in our county, we should recognize that infrastructure needs to be sensitive to context. Designing a road in Medina is different from a street in Minneapolis. We need to design appropriately for the most rural parts of the county where farms exist just as we need to design well for the most urban streets in Minneapolis. I’m committed to a future for Hennepin County where this kind of diversity still exists, and we should support that through our planning decisions.

In balancing the needs of these different communities, we should seek to invest where our community will see the best return on its investment and where those investments will best enhance the efficiency and the livability of our region. In general, we need a greater focus on investments in already developed places. Many older areas with high concentrations of small businesses would benefit from additional investment, and development in places with existing infrastructure can contribute to the walkability of communities and the efficiency of our transportation system.

3.) In 2009, Hennepin County adopted a Complete Streets Policy, and today they’re moving forward with a Washington Avenue reconstruction that accommodates all modes of transportation. In your opinion, what road or street in District 3 would be a candidate for this kind of consideration? How would you make it happen?

One place meriting this kind of consideration is the connection between Lake Street in Uptown to Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park. Throughout this connection, the sidewalks are narrow, the cars are fast, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a safe place to bike – even though it connects communities to Lake Calhoun from both directions. The need for improved walkability and bikability in this corridor will increase even further when the West Lake Station opens behind Whole Foods.

To implement the Hennepin County complete streets policy, in this corridor and throughout the county, we need to look at changing our design standards. Current practices are based on old thinking – out of touch with the aspirations and lifestyle choices of people in a thriving metropolis like ours. For example, they assume that vehicle travel will perpetually increase and that we therefore must always increase our roadway capacity. Yet recent data shows that vehicle travel has stayed constant over the last decade. Likewise, the Minnesota State Aid Standards – the design standards attached to state funding – have specific requirements related to vehicle space but are silent on pedestrian space. This must change, and we should work with the legislature to do so. I represent the County Attorney’s Office at the legislature, I used to work at the legislature, and I know how to advocate for this kind of change.

As we improve our street design standards, we should integrate more innovative bicycle facility design options, such as the protected bike lanes now planned for Washington Avenue. Bicycling needs to work for people from 8 to 80, not just the most experience or confident riders. We’re lucky to live in a time where people want transportation alternatives, but we’re restrained by the policy choices of the past. It’s time to make new choices that can lead us to a more livable, sustainable transportation future.

4.) Hennepin County has jurisdiction over many major thoroughfares in Minneapolis including Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue, and Minnehaha Avenue. What would you do to balance regional mobility with local quality of life?

Our major thoroughfares have competing needs. They’re places that people pass through, and they’re destinations where people live, shop, eat, and play. But for decades, Hennepin County policy neglected this diversity of uses, focusing on optimizing car travel, often at the expense of everything else. Today we need a new focus, on making our streets not just easy places to travel through in a car, but great places to travel to and great places to navigate by transit, by bike, or on foot.

Readjusting these priorities will lead to a number of policy changes. First, we need to make street design decisions that improve the experience of people who spend time along our streets. This means investing in streetscapes, with more trees and green infrastructure. It means better space for foot traffic, including pedestrian bumpouts and wider sidewalks. And it means bicycle facilities that function well and feel safe to people of all ages. These policy changes need to be reflected in funding streams too. While the County fully funds road reconstruction from curb to curb, it still views sidewalks as a local responsibility – offering only a competitive grant program for sidewalk reconstruction. Our funding should reflect our multimodal vision.

We also need to explore dedicating more street space to improving the speed and reliability of transit. Especially where we invest in streetcars, I would like to see more dedicated right-of-way so that the level of improvement better matches the level of investment. And I would strongly support implementation of Metro Transit’s arterial bus service plans to improve the base bus service along all high frequency routes, especially the ones that are standing room only every day. Travel time makes a big difference to people. If you can get home in 30 minutes instead of 45 minutes, that’s more time you can spend with your family or doing something else important, and I think we should be able to get further faster than we can today.

5.) What, specifically, is your stance on the current Southwest Corridor colocation vs. relocation debate? Or do you support reconsidering the process that selected the Kenilworth corridor, or do you support another plan?

I strongly support the light rail system. I want to see it expand and I want to see it succeed. This will mean smart planning around all of the new stations on the Southwest line to drive strong ridership. Communities should be able to connect easily with the stations, on foot and by bicycle. The county should work to facilitate development around the stations, working closely with the cities along the line to achieve this goal.

The opportunity that we have right now to study the complications of the current plan for the Kenilworth corridor is important. I’m glad that we’re taking a serious look on the impact that any plan will have on the lakes, which are a priceless treasure. I’m also glad that alternative freight routes are being studied, and I remain hopeful that a freight rail relocation solution can be found that does not involve a 20 foot berm in St. Louis Park. When the Met Council meets to look at these studies, I have every expectation that they will take seriously the results of these studies and make an informed decision about how to proceed.

My intention, at the moment that I become commissioner, is to be forward-looking, focusing on the questions ahead rather than revisiting decisions already made. I might not have made all of the same decisions at every point in the planning process of the Southwest line, and some of the decisions disappointed me. But I remain committed to the line’s success.

As we begin planning the Bottineau line and other infrastructure projects, I am committed to learning lessons from the Southwest planning process, applying them, and solving the challenges of the future to make sure that light rail continues to succeed in our region. In particular, I would like to see a stronger focus on bringing transit to existing neighborhoods, that are already walkable and where density already exists or is already underway. We can build a future with less car travel by bringing people to our transit infrastructure, but we should also build it by bringing transit infrastructure to people.

6.) Tell us about a formative experience you’ve had using transit, cycling, or as a pedestrian.

I have been multimodal my whole life. I grew up biking, walking, or riding the bus to school, to baseball practice, to the library, or to my job at our local coffee shop. My neighborhood had no bike lanes: I was often biking along such menacing corridors as University or Snelling Avenues. Like most people, though, I didn’t view this a policy or political problem. I just saw it as the way of the world.

Then, after college, I went to work for a community development nonprofit in Philadelphia. In partnership with a variety of community development corporations and neighborhood groups, I worked on revitalizing neighborhood commercial corridors, creating transit-oriented development, and improving the livability of residential neighborhoods. It quickly became apparent to me the extent to which our transportation modes are the product of political choices – choices that we can reconsider as we work to build healthier communities, more vibrant neighborhoods, and more environmentally responsible lifestyles. I later lived for a time in New York, a city where most people live and get around without private cars, and I experienced the accompanying range of transportation and lifestyle options that result.

My life today is similarly multimodal. I bike or bus to work every day. My wife and I own only one car, and when we were deciding where to buy a house and start a family, we consciously chose a neighborhood where we would not need to buy a second one. I want people in more parts of our county to have that option, and I am committed to making the investments necessary to bring that about.

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