Hey Transit Investments, Don’t Skimp on the Sidewalks

stp university-ave-lrt

University Avenue sidewalk.

What if you built a transit line, and nobody came? More and more that’s a distinct possibility because, as projects face tighter fiscal realities at all levels of government, it’s getting harder to fund the actual pedestrian infrastructure that makes transit useful in the first place.

The SWLRT offers a good example. You’re probably so sick of reading about the (underinflated?) political football that you missed this intriguing Star Tribune article a few weeks ago about how the Federal transit funding formula had changed recently. Here’s the important part:

In what several local officials call a “clawback,” the Federal Transit Administration recently ended its long-standing practice of allowing cities to seek grants from unused contingency money for local improvements related to light-rail projects. The locals first learned of the change in October, after giving their required municipal consent to the rail line over the summer.

Such grants in the past have been worth tens of millions of dollars to local governments for items like parking decks, road and safety improvements, pedestrian bridges and trails linking light-rail stations to the surrounding areas. The $1 billion budget for the recently completed Green Line provided about $23.5 million from unused contingency funds to local governments.

That kind of “penny-foolish” approach is nothing new; transportation investments have long prioritized large expensive (and simple) automobile projects over the relatively cheaper (but complex) infrastructures like sidewalks. Think of the cost of an expensive bridge or overpass versus the kinds of street grid or land use approaches that encourage walking, and you’ll get the idea. More and more, it seems to me that local governments will be left holding the bag that contains all the important details. That’s the wrong approach.

The CTIB Bike/Ped Cap

This kind of mis-prioritization happens at the regional level too, as part of the CTIB (Counties Transit Improvement Board) legislation that currently funds many of our transit projects. Written into the 2008 legislation is a small detail that reads:

No more than 1.25 percent of the total awards may be annually allocated to planning, studies, design, construction, maintenance, and operation of pedestrian programs and bicycle programs and pathways.

Now, this isn’t as big a deal as you might think, because according to a friend of mine who works closely on transit legislation at the capitol, currently CTIB hasn’t spent ANY money on bike or pedestrian improvements. They have pretty limited funding, and most of those dollars have gone for big-ticket infrastructure like the Green Line or park and rides.

As I understand it, this means that for regional transit projects, the money to construct the valuable connections between the new station areas has to come from the strapped city budgets, where sidewalks compete against libraries, recreation centers, or police and fire services.

State And Federal Money Doesn’t Pay for Sidewalks

stp-universityave-before-and-afterIn a way, the new Green Line along University Avenue is the exception that proves the rule. As part of the billion-dollar project, the entire sidewalk and streeetscape on University Avenue was reconstructed, installing nice new trees, sidewalks, and rain gardens that make walking along the Green Line stations a relatively pleasant experience (even if the street lacks the parking buffer, bike racks, or bike lane amenities).

But with the new changes, I fear that future transit projects will not be so lucky. Rather, they’ll come to resemble the status quo for state infrastructure projects, where cities have to fund pedestrian improvements while state money goes for the road infrastructure.

For example, MNDOT is re-decking the Smith Avenue “high bridge” by my house in a few years. Unless Saint Paul ponies up a bunch of money for nice sidewalks, the state agency will install bare bones lighting and railings along the bridge. This seems backwards to me. “Transportation” should be more than about simply moving cars, and MNDOT should offer high quality of service for everyone, drivers, walkers, and bicyclists included.


A spot on the High Bridge, aka MN-149, that badly needs ped improvements.

New Legislation with Dedicated Funding

No matter how you feel about increasing taxes for transportation, one of the really nice things about the Senate’s proposed transportation package is that it includes dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Here’s what the Senate (DFL) proposal would dedicate (again, according to my legislature friend):

The Senate bill (SF 87) introduced last week by Senator Dibble allocates nearly 10% of a ¾ cent metro sales tax increase to bike/ped in the twin cities metro.  It’s slightly less than 10% because a small portion of this 10% can be used for streetcar planning (not more than 10% of 10%). And because about 1/16 of the total ¾ cent sales tax increase can be used by all metro counties (except Hennepin) for transportation purposes. Note: Hennepin OK with all sales tax to transit and other counties could use this small allocation for bike/peds/transit or roads.

It’s less complicated than it sounds. To me, this dedicated funding is a key reason to support the expanded CTIP transportation package (provided the language isn’t stripped out in conference committee negotiations). While there are some problems with dedicated funding (which can sometimes lead to nonsensical boondoggles), having money set aside for cost-effective and overlooked sidewalk and bike infrastructure would really be a game changer for walkability and transit in the Twin Cities. For once, it would force cities to focus on the devilish details, instead of just the big picture.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.