Re-Framing the Regional Transportation Debate

If you’re a regular (or even casual) reader of, you’re probably aware of the debate being waged on transportation and land-use policy in the Twin Cities. The Met Council’s Thrive 2040 plan and recent election cycle seemed to magnify the divide (which may or may not be drawn along political lines). MinnPost (via our own Bill Lindeke) covered the eloquently nicknamed CWADS’ (the 5 suburban counties of the MSP area – Carver, Washington, Anoka, Dakota, and Scott) uproar over Thrive 2040’s goals of balancing transportation investments and imposing stricter land-use regulations, particularly around major regional transit investments. Adding fuel to the fire are the Center for the American Experiment voices using scare tactics to rile up the Strib commenters.

At its heart, the frustration from suburban residents and leaders seems to come from a position of unfairness. Statements like “..the plan focuses on transit and non-motorized transportation without paying enough attention to highways and freight, which they count as their lifeblood” and “There’s just a feeling that Thrive is not applied equally throughout the region” (both from the Star Tribune article) underscore this feeling. Bill already covered some structural underpinnings that actually flip this assumption on its head, but I’d like to dig deeper to help re-frame the transportation conversation.

Roads, Streets, and Access

The belief that we’ve somehow under-invested in roads and streets baffles my mind. People are surprised when an endless supply of roads, each funneling to the next hierarchical level, ends in congestion – they shouldn’t be. But even if you’re still shocked, the belief that we don’t have enough roads is unfounded.

LaneMilesPerCapita_CountiesLane miles (only within municipal borders to avoid counting rural farm roads) per-capita in suburban counties greatly outweigh the core counties. Even within Hennepin and Ramsey, the core cities have roughly 1/3 fewer lane miles per capita than in-county suburbs.

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), who gives us fuel for more road building with their Annual Urban Mobility Report (which has been thoroughly debunked as far as I’m concerned), is nevertheless a great repository for metro-level road data reaching back to 1982. When we look at the number of lane miles (which only includes down into freeways and arterials) constructed over the past three decades or so, we see that road building has even outstripped population growth in the Twin Cities:

LaneMiles_vs_PopulationChgWe should remember that this data set starts after the majority of our regional interstate and highways were constructed. Yes, the final bits of 35E in St Paul and I-394 had yet to be completed, but the early 80s Twin Cities had plenty of suburban space with large lot homes to go around. By estimates[1] we spent over $10 billion in $2011 constructing only freeways and arterials (not including their annual maintenance costs or any municipal streets). We know that this infrastructure isn’t paying for itself anymore. But it certainly has been a boon to drivers:



20 minute job accessibility by car (left) vs 30 minute job accessibility by transit (right) Source: University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies

I mean, I don’t know about anyone else, but that chart on the left looks pretty darn good to me. In fact, our region as a whole ranks fifth in the country for weighted average jobs accessible despite ranking 14th for total number of metro jobs. Someone living at the eastern edge of Chanhassen has as many jobs accessible to them by car in 20 minutes as a person living just south of Lake Street in Uptown does with a 10 minute head start by transit. We could stop building roads and lanes for 20 years and still have nationally competitive car commute times and job access.

But the Economy!

And what did all this road-building get us? One of the silver bullets when arguing for more roads is always the economic development potential they bring. Is this even true in the last 30 years? We know at a national level that we’ve seen diminishing returns on the last-mile added for roads from an economic perspective. But what about the roads we built in the Twin Cities, specifically?


Using TTI’s freeway and arterial lane mile data and MSP metro GDP growth scientifically extrapolated from this chart (seriously, if anyone has hard metro GDP historical data, please let me know), I built these charts. The question is: does higher levels of road building lead to greater economic growth in the following years. I used previous 1 year lane mile change and 3, 5, and 10 year GDP change, as well as one test for the previous 5 years of road building. In no case have we seen a significant positive correlation to support our idea that roads = commerce.

The reality is that these roads were built almost exclusively to support a certain suburban lifestyle. We even elected a US congressman who partly campaigned to build more roads so we don’t have to fly a helicopter to work. Those opposed to the Thrive 2040 plan should honestly ask how many times the big, bad, Agenda 21-ers at the Met Council  said “no” to a new subdivision, widened arterial, new 6 lane highway, or interstate expansion. When you push hard enough, MnDOT finds the money for a full (untolled) lane on 494. When Lakeville needs a $6 million roundabout to support future growth, they get it.

I’m not going to sit here and justify every single transit project in the hopper – there’s some pretty hefty costs per rider for most of those lines chasing suburban jobs and downtown commuters (though we should at least acknowledge that part of the high cost is baked into the transit-hostile land uses, freeway/arterial flyovers, and other cost escalators thanks to auto-oriented design).

Choo Choo

Choo Choo!

And, we should definitely question why transit seems to fail at recovering operating costs when other parts of the world have proved improvements can be made. But I feel like we could have easily accommodated the roughly 1 million people our metro added since the early 80s all within the 494/694 beltway had we spent $10 billion on rail lines with downtown tunnels and a far better bus systems. Asking that we start to steer the massive ship away from the 60 year status-quo towards something more environmentally and fiscally sustainable seems like a fair goal for a regional planning body.


[1] This estimation was tough since aggregate spending data on metro-specific projects is hard to come by. I used data by roadway type and location in Table 5.6 3-4. This includes right-of-way acquisition, construction, and an estimate of intersection costs added per lane mile. I brought the total cost down for arterials by 25% , and used BLS inflation calculator to bring the cost structure to $2011. I assumed 25% of new lane miles were in built-up areas with the rest being greenfield (outlying). I’m open to hone this model with anyone who has a better method, but I feel the ending number probably isn’t too far off.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at