How to Spend the Next Billion on Transit

The Twin Cities is gearing up to spend quite a bit of money on transit infrastructure over the next five-to-ten years. By my count, the Blue Line Extension (Bottineau LRT), Green Line Extension (Southwest LRT), Orange Line BRT, and Gold Line BRT will run a tab of nearly $4 billion. Some of these lines are more cost-effective than others, and they all certainly connect centrally-located transit riders with some of the (many) suburban job centers. Suburban commuters also benefit.

Here’s the rub: it’s not enough. Not even close. I’m going to throw some data in chart form at you to show why. As many a commenter can tell you, the Minneapolis-St Paul region is a fairly sprawled one, in both jobs and population. By this semi-scientific measure, we’re the 147th most compact metro of 221 in these United States. One could make the case that this has worked out pretty well for drivers:

Job Accessibility by Car, Percent of Total Across US Metros

Metros with over 1 million jobs

The average resident in the Twin Cities can access nearly every job in the metro within 30 minutes according to the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory. MSP ranks among the best large metros in this regard. Meanwhile, the average transit rider has it much worse:

Job Accessibility by Transit, Percent of Total Across US Metros

This chart would look much worse with an upper bound of 100%

MSP is in the middle of the pack in providing job access by transit to residents, with most metros failing to crack 2% of jobs in 30 minutes (again, for the average person). One final chart:


For the average metro area resident, one can access nearly 100 times more jobs by car than transit in a 30 minute window. Minneapolis-St Paul is clearly in the bottom tier of large metros, with peer-sized regions (e.g. Seattle and Denver) doing about as good a job as cities with much better legacy transit infrastructure (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc), and New York is clearly a cut above the field. I’d say this has as much to do with the quality and coverage of transit as it does about road congestion limiting job access by car, but congested metros are often the ones with the most, and typically highest-paying, jobs in the first place.

This is unacceptable.

Access to economic opportunity should not rely on how many cars per working adult a household can afford. Yes, in the real world, people make all sorts of trade-offs in living arrangements relative to their job location. School quality, yard size, house size & features, proximity to family or friends, preference for commuting in a single occupancy vehicle, I could go on. And we will likely never completely level the transit vs car playing field (see: New York City). But someone should be able to live in most parts of our metro and still have the ability to access a reasonable number of jobs without a car in a reasonable commute time.

Okay, So What About That $1 Billion Idea?

I stated earlier that our major planned regional transit lines aren’t enough. Simply put, our metro has jobs scattered about too much for a few rail lines to really impact job accessibility for a typical resident. As transit advocates, we need to admit that after nearly $4 billion, there will be little appetite for more large-scale rail or expensive highway BRT investments, particularly ones that take a decade or more to study and plan and build.

This is what we'll get for $4 billion as planned, including the first two aBRT routes.

This is what we’ll get for $4 billion as planned, including the first two aBRT routes.

We’re going to have to be probus, the cheap kind that can roll out on urban arteries and even highways near major job centers. Let’s assume the 4 major lines under planning are funded and built given regional politics and wheels already in motion. How should we spend the next $1 billion? Why not something that looks like this:

MSP $1bn Proposal


These lines on a map represent every single studied highway BRT, arterial BRT, plus the Midtown Greenway rail project and Red Rock Corridor BRT. Using cost estimates from the latest project documents, and inflating to 2020 dollars, I estimate we could build them all for $1.19 billion. Depending on how you calculate riders from project documents, these lines would see between 90,000 and 100,000 weekday riders in 2030.

This is no fantasy map; I intended it to be pragmatic and within the realm of possibility based on what the Met Council and partners have already investigated. Using a mix of project document and Census OnTheMap data, there were roughly 900,000 non-downtown jobs, for a total of 1.03 million, within a half mile radius of the stations. I should note that the aBRT documents count jobs within a half-mile of the aBRT “route,” which likely overstates the job shed. No, not everyone will be able to reach all one million jobs in half an hour or less. But I’m willing to bet an accessibility model will show massive improvement over the status quo.

I took a few liberties and applied the aBRT treatment to a few more of our top bus routes (and then some), added a few highway BRT lines or extensions, and estimated the capital costs for an even more robust high-frequency bus network:

MSP $1.6 billion dollar transit investment

Go ahead and play around with it. Note the way the trunk radial LRT lines act as great transfer points with many bus lines, and the relative ease many residents (particularly in the core) can reach major suburban job centers with a single transfer. A person in Brooklyn Park could get on the Blue Line, transfer to the Highway 100 BRT in Robbinsdale, and go directly to Normandale Lake Office Park.

A grand total of $1.65 billion ($2020) builds this network. That’s roughly one Southwest Light Rail, or a little more than two Stillwater Bridges. With almost all the investment inside Hennepin and Ramsey Counties (but for a few tails of lines in Dakota and Carver), we could build it all in roughly four to five years with a revamped regional sales tax. Yes, aBRT and Highway BRT will cost Metro Transit more to operate than today’s budget allows. The $1 billion plan adds $124 million ($2020) a year in operating costs per project documents. So let’s build the lines out a tad slower and use the new sales tax to fund operations long-term. And hey, maybe in a decade we can use some surplus to build a few tunnels downtown.

This is the conversation I wish we were having in the state legislature. This is what a conservative’s approach to building an equitable transit system looks like. The MN GOP should be pushing back on existing plans with a reasonable alternative like this paired with other smart, low-cost improvements to the bus system and congestion pricing on every urban highway. Instead we get cuts in real dollars for regular service and no funding for transit improvements.

Yes, we could debate exactly which lines get built, or their routing. Municipalities will also need to pitch in and build sidewalks, bike paths, and bike parking around stations. We should up-zone the not-terrible station areas and build affordable housing.  And we should be strategic in making a few highway station areas really nice. This is how we allow our suburbs to steer the ship ever so slightly away from car-dependence while strengthening the core cities by bolstering suburban job access. And it can be done quickly and on the cheap, relatively speaking.

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