Out in the world, there exist all sorts of theories and ideas that are generally correct, in a broad, often academic sense. But you’ll find that those theories and ideas can’t always be applied to all possible situations in the universe.
You can say, for example, that lower taxes are good for an economy. More people having more money to do things with? That’s probably good. You know, however, that the logic can’t be extended out into infinity. Some amount of tax is probably a good idea if you don’t want your barn to be burned down by marauders, etc.
Urban/Suburban Job Disconnect
One idea that exists and that is correct in a broad sense is that there is a disconnect between inner-city residents and job centers out in the suburbs. American metropolitan areas, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, have spread out a great deal in the past seventy years. According to the Department of Labor, in 2014 there were about 1.8 million jobs in our metropolitan area, which has about 3.5 million residents. And most of those jobs are in the suburbs. Per the Metropolitan Council, there are 308,000 and 177,000 jobs in Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively. So the central cities have about 27% of the total jobs, and about 20% of the population. That’s actually pretty good, you’d think.
But due to the geographic spread of jobs and the auto-oriented (and actively transit-, pedestrian-, and cyclist-hostile) land use and design of the suburbs, the pool of available jobs looks very different to different people. A person with a car has a much larger pool of potentially available jobs than a person without a car. A gal in Maplewood with a car can go much further than a guy in St. Paul without a car.
And cars are expensive! Low-income people are less likely to be able to afford them. A confluence of other factors will also reduce the potential earning power of low-income people applying for these hypothetical jobs, e.g. they may be recent immigrants with limited English, they may have not attended college, etc. So those jobs are likely to pay less than whatever an entry-level analyst at Medtronic is making these days.
Does it make financial sense to buy a car and pay for insurance and gas and maintenance to drive 15 miles to a job paying you $11 an hour for 25 hours a week?
For all sorts of complicated and historical and systemic reasons, poverty tends to be concentrated in our central cities. It’s not universally true, and there are plenty of low-income people in all places. (In particular, poverty is moving to the northwest out of Minneapolis proper.) But you might generally identify four areas: North Minneapolis (in particular the Near Northside) and Phillips in Minneapolis, and Frogtown and the East Side in St. Paul.
It’s not exact, but it’s something that shows up on maps.
So in a nutshell, the disconnect from suburban jobs is one piece of a large structural puzzle of disadvantages that people in places like North Minneapolis have to piece together. Many people elsewhere (in like, say, the southwest metro) have the puzzle handed to them partially or completely assembled. If you are interested in more information and also other angles about this topic, you could start here or here.
The Legend of Kenilworth vs. Uptown
If you’ve been following the process of extending the METRO Green Line out to Eden Prairie, you’ve heard many things about many topics, almost all of it terrible, because even the good stuff at this point is standing in a pool of terrible stuff and reminds you on a deep level of how flawed everything is; for example, this post is terrible and I hate that I feel compelled to write it, and I sincerely (really) apologize and am also sincerely sorry for breaking the fourth wall.
By now you certainly know that back in 2009, Hennepin County, along with the Metropolitan Council, picked an ostensibly cheaper route to Eden Prairie, skipping on an alignment through the then densely-populated and now much more densely-populated Uptown area. The route chosen through an old rail corridor turned out to be kind of a mess upon further review, necessitating (politically) a tunnel under a bike trail and existing freight rail tracks.
Two years later, we’re still diddling, with the added bonus of hundreds of millions of dollars in extra engineering needed in Eden Prairie due to marshy soils (perhaps rename it Eden Marsh, at this point there’s way more marsh than prairie) though that looks to have been resolved, using this strategy.
Two weeks ago, the mayor of Eden Prairie remarked that she thought “[most] express commuters to downtown will stick to the bus system, because it’s a much quicker trip on the bus than light rail,” at which point my brain exploded. For the record, I disagree that most southwest metro commuters will stick to buses heading downtown, even if they’re a little bit faster. But what do I or anyone else know at this point, over three decades into this project?
She also stated that she thought people would take the train to, say, Hopkins, because buses don’t currently go there. That people in Eden Prairie will drive to a light rail station and park in a ramp and wait for a train and take a train to Hopkins instead of driving there in six minutes.
Another thing we’ve heard more recently is that we’re building the Green Line extension how and where we are due to that urban/suburban job access disconnect, outlined above. About 30% of households in the Near North community of Minneapolis do not own a vehicle. So in theory, there are some number of people who would have access to a larger pool of jobs. You could maybe write out an equation or something, where x number of people have y improved access to z number of jobs, over $1.65 billion dollars.
The problem is that other than some very small amount of people who are walking up to stations from, say, the Harrison neighborhood, and taking a train to West Lake to work at Whole Foods, these transit trips are ridiculous and cockamamie for what is effectively not a huge number of jobs.
There are a little over 10,000 jobs within a third of a mile of stations from Shady Oak to Eden Prairie Center, which is what we are touting as the Fertile Crescent (marshes, remember) of jobs. There are, notably, about 160,000 jobs in Downtown Minneapolis alone, which are pretty easily accessible by buses like the 5, 7, 14, 19, and 22. It takes about 15 minutes to get to Nicollet Mall from West Broadway on a bus in rush hour. (Which isn’t to say everything is fantastic for the Northside, transit-wise, which we will circle back to in a minute.)
The idea that any significant number of people from North Minneapolis are going to go wait at a bus stop, take a bus to Royalston station, get on a train, take it four cities over, get off in an industrial park or mall parking lot, and walk half a mile along this road to make $12 an hour has always been ludicrous. Full stop. That the media has been reporting this as a legitimate argument for the bad routing of the Green Line extension is lazy at best.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs already accessible by single seat transit ride from North Minneapolis in considerably less time than it would take to string together a transit trip to Eden Prairie for the vast majority of these hypothetical reverse commuters–who, for what it’s worth, would be taking a transit trip in lieu of a possible twenty minute car ride with no traffic to a workplace with free parking. There are also thousands of industrial jobs along the river within literal walking distance of many of the neediest neighborhoods, which the City’s Above the Falls Master Plan notes are “relatively high paying blue‐collar jobs that do not require advanced education,” and that “[this] is clearly a resource for residents of the low‐ to moderate‐income neighborhoods that flank the river.” The same plan also notes that less than 10% of these positions are currently held by Northside workers.
Furthermore, aside from that handful of walk up riders in Harrison and Sumner-Glenwood, Northsiders are going to need to take a bus to the station anyway, and if the thing had been routed down Nicollet, Hennepin, or another downtown street, they would have been able to take the bus to the line by riding it another three minutes past Royalston to downtown.
The Jobs Argument is Ludicrous
Go back and look at the news articles and editorials (search: “Southwest Corridor” on a local news website) and you will find that the claim about Northside job access did not really emerge until a few years ago, when shrewd politicians and others figured they could just vaguely accuse people of racism for opposing a route that unhelpfully nicks the bottom of North Minneapolis. Many of these same politicians approved a terrible route for the Blue Line extension in the Bottineau Corridor, which will also unhelpfully nick the edges of North Minneapolis, one of the most transit-dependent communities for many hundreds of miles in any direction.
In a few years, North Minneapolis will get some faster buses on Penn Avenue. For the foreseeable future, that’s about all they’re going to get, mobility-wise, as we upgrade southwest metro commuters from coach buses with wi-fi to light rail trains that will run mostly empty at noon on weekdays. This is egregious.
This route was picked through a deeply and objectively flawed process that favored minutes of time savings for suburban commuters. And we all know at this point is that, yes, it is complicated. Federal dollars are tied to various things and you can’t just make up what you want to do and build it the next day. We all know.
But stop dressing up bizarre defenses of what has been a thoroughly embarrassing disaster of a process, and let’s hope we don’t repeat our mistakes. This never had anything to do with the Northside, or with equity, or any other thing that sounds valiant. Take it from former Metropolitan Council chairman Peter Bell:
The real problem would be if the group’s complaint caused the project to be delayed or derailed, Bell said. “Then of course the money would go out to the Southwest Corridor and Eden Prairie, and that would be a real environmental justice issue, in my mind.”
That’s him some number of years ago describing what would have happened if a lawsuit against the Green Line in St. Paul successfully derailed that project.
Folding a $20 Bill the Right Way
You’ll find, actually, that the biggest indicator of who this line is for has been right in front of us all along, in all the news stories and studies and City Council meeting minutes and terrible blogs and less-than-terrible blogs, often in the headlines of those things, saving us precious minutes and clicks…
…it’s called the Southwest Corridor.
Note: It’s been a couple months since the last calamitous revelation about the planned Green Line extension, and so the author has switched back to being pretty apathetic about it overall; whatever, who cares, nothing matters, just build it and be done with it and we’ll ironically take it out to Eden Prairie Center to buy a Cinnabon or something. But this specific point has just been driving him crazy for a while.
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