Scrutinizing Roads To The Same Degree As Transit

  1. Note: This article contains my personal opinions and are not official nor endorsed statements from my employer.

The Tunnel Vision That Shapes Transportation Funding Proposals

The current omnibus bill proposal regarding the state’s allocations for transportation funding has been a popular subject for Minnesotans. The Republican legislators successfully passed their proposed omnibus bills in both sides of the Legislature (H.F. 861 / S.F. 1060). The House’s proposal is what is getting carried over to the Senate and then to the Governor. H.F 861 prioritizes funding for Minnesota’s roads and bridges, which are in dire need of repair. It also provides additional funding to suburban transit providers (ex: Maple Grove Transit), while Metro Transit’s funding needs are not met. As a result, Metro Transit is expecting to see a reduction in bus service (a 40% reduction was originally proposed) even if a proposed fare increase is approved.

Some positive news is that Metro Transit’s projected deficit at Metro Transit was reduced before the House sent the bill to the Senate, though Metro Transit will have a funding shortfall that could affect bus service. In addition to ensuring that existing bus services are not cut, we should be looking at ways to expand transit rather than weakening it.

Access to transit impacts the ability for people to get to their jobs, to attend school, and to complete other tasks such as getting groceries. Minnesotans with low incomes get impacted the hardest, as transit is often a necessity for them to get around rather than by choice. A service reduction would also lead to more people using cars for transportation if they have the ability to do so. Reducing transit service does not seem like an effective way to help all Minnesotans get from point A to point B, since it excludes the needs of Minnesotans who are unable to drive. Despite this scrutiny towards transit’s fiscal viability, road projects aren’t being held to a similar standard. It is not fair when austere measures are only applied to certain modes of transportation.

Most riders come from households making under $50,000/year. Source: Metropolitan Council’s Role in Regional Transportation – Metro Council, 2017

When sidewalks, bike infrastructure, and/or transit projects are proposed, the question of using taxpayer money usually comes into play. We should hold our road infrastructure to the same standards. 

Scrutiny should happen among all projects regardless of mode if we insist on caring about the rate of investment per dollar. MnDOT follows a process for a benefit-cost analysis for projects, though it may exclude some factors. Senator Osmek recently criticized the return on investment (ROI) in rail transportation. He stated that road projects have better rates of return on investment than rail. His point is defended by MnDOT’s claim stating that road projects see around 2-4 dollars returned per dollar spent versus rail’s rate being less than a dollar. His calculations regarding light rail subsidies are sound; they should be compared to other expensive road projects such as the St. Croix Crossing near Stillwater or the Elk Run interchange near Oronoco. Were the subsidies per driver worth the capital costs in those projects?

The Legislature expects MnDOT to be more transparent in project selection, though it is questionable how effective it will be. When it comes to project selection, usually the biggest critics of MnDOT are legislators along the U.S. Highway 12 and 14 corridors. These corridors are perceived as unsafe, and are constantly promoted to be expanded in the name of safety and congestion. Would a four-lane divided roadway make these corridors safer? MnDOT’s crash data does show differences in average crash rates between two-lane and four-lane rural highways. Is congestion on these corridors so severe that it warrants expansion? Upgrading a two-lane highway to a “Super-2” with occasional passing lanes could be more cost-effective than building a four-lane divided highway while still addressing congestion and safety issues. The existing Super-2 configuration of Highway 12 was upgraded with a concrete barrier for $2.3 million to lower crash rates, as a 4-lane expansion would have required much more money. Waiting for funding an expansion could have further delayed any safety improvements on the highway. We should question our ability to expand roads, since we should be fiscally conservative with roads if we are going to be for other modes.

Average crash rates by roadway section. Source: MnDOT, 2015


Small Towns and the Missed Opportunity for Multimodal Investments

Very wide roads in small towns are commonplace, yet most face little congestion to warrant multi-lane roads. Many two-lane roads in these towns are effectively four-lane undivided roads with lane widths in excess of 16 feet. The wide main streets of these towns tend to be prime candidates for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure improvements given the right-of-way is already there to make them. Quiet residential streets tend to be quite wide in these towns.

Wider than necessary roads are not an effective way of using space, and increases maintenance costs due to there being more pavement to maintain. We should be allocating lane widths more stringently, as wide lanes can encourage drivers to speed and other risky behavior. We are constantly notified on how dire our maintenance needs are. As a result, we need to audit our roads and decide what could be narrowed when the road or street is due for a reconstruction. These measures could improve safety and help stabilize overall maintenance costs rather see them increase every year. Land and property values may increase if the road/street becomes more attractive for not just driving and parking.

Hibbing has wide streets, as seen here on 6th Ave E north of Howard St. Their streets become narrow during heavy snowfalls (left), but otherwise seem too wide (right). Plowing slow is difficult, though a snow barrier might be better along a sidewalk rather than the middle of the street. The city is currently facing financial difficulties maintaining their infrastructure, such as being $142,000 short of funding the lowest bid for a sewer lining project. Picture Source: Self-taken, November 2016 (left); April 2017 (right).

Small towns that grew before the mid-20th century usually have a grid layout with a dense commercial corridor surrounded by blocks of homes that are within a short walking distance. Industrial facilities such as factories tended to be built within town or right on the outskirts, but were still easily accessible by walking or biking due to the compact sizes of the community. After World War II, most towns followed the appeal of suburbanization which helped decentralize business districts, and led to sprawling developments. Small towns are seen to be close-knit communities, though it seems that they have unraveled in the past few decades.

My mother lives in Hibbing, which has spread out development despite its losing residents. Its retail has slowly been moving to the outskirts, and small businesses and larger retailers seem unable to compete with Walmart since it opened in 2001. More businesses are moving to the city’s periphery, away from the walkable core. Around 11% of households in Hibbing have no car, and nearly 29% are cost burdened. These households are put at a disadvantage and are likely to experience higher transportation costs as a result of this decentralization which led to a reduction of the town’s job and retail density. Every year Hibbing gets millions in state-funded Local Government Aid, and its continuation of expanding outwards would likely make Hibbing more dependent on this type of aid. This will come at a high cost to both its residents and taxpayers around the state.

The Economic Barriers of Urban Arterials and Collectors

Larger towns, suburbs, and cities tend to have large arterial and collector roadways. Wide roadways might be warranted due to higher traffic volumes, but they can be unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Road expansion commonly occurs on these roads, which may lead to expensive right-of-way acquisition. Land acquisition is newsworthy when its proposed for a LRT project, yet this level of scrutiny is less common when land is acquired for roads (though it does happen). Expansion that requires the removal of existing structures can actually hurt the community more than benefit it. The land that remains often remains vacant for years, which can reduce property values for neighboring properties. An added turn lane that removes homes may hurt the housing market as the supply of affordable housing is constricted. We may lose a local business that has been there for years. In a thriving community, congestion should be expected to some degree. A reliance on cars to access these areas is what makes mitigating congestion costly.

When the Rice Street-Highway 36 interchange was rebuilt a few years ago in suburban Ramsey County, multiple properties were acquired due to Rice being expanded to 4 lanes. What used to be a restaurant and an apartment complex in Roseville has since became a field of overgrown grassland. The apartment complex wasn’t in the best condition, but nothing was built to replace the lost affordable housing. Little Canada faced more luck in redeveloping their vacant land, as they gained a park-and-ride lot which is now the busiest bus stop in the city, and a Planned Parenthood clinic. Redeveloping properties can be difficult and take a long time, which can weaken a city’s tax base.

Expansion also usually leads to a roadway design that is hostile towards anyone not in a car. Usually newer interchanges have wider turning radius for cars and trucks, which can make crossing the road when walking or biking difficult and dangerous. Drivers who make right turns on red constantly block crosswalks even when the walk signal is on. Road expansion may bring new pedestrian ramps, though the distance of an added lane or two may discourage walking. It also may bring “bike improvements” that end up being a safety risk. These types of designs induce people to drive and increase congestion in the long run.

It seems that adding a multi-use path here would have been a safer and more effective option to serve people biking. A path already exists along Rice south of County Rd BSources: Ramsey County, 2010 (Section); Google Street View, 2016 (Photo)

The Rice Street-Highway 36 interchange also faces these issues. The reconstruction project added sidewalks and “bike area” lanes, but the project primarily improved access for cars at the expense of people using other modes. Crossing here by walking or biking is not pleasant. There were new sidewalks built, but crossing the ramps to/from Highway 36 requires one to cross at an unmarked location where cars speed through the right turn slip lanes. People have to walk across 4-6 lanes compared to just 3-4 before it was rebuilt. The most dangerous mode to use here is biking. The 3-foot wide “bike area” lanes do not meet State Aid Standards for bike facilities along arterial roads, which requires at least a 6 foot wide bike lane or other options. This is likely why there are no pavement markings or signs indicating that it is a bike lane. There are signs warning drivers to yield to cyclists in this “bike area” at the start of a right turn lane, which does indicate it is meant for biking. This type of design is what leads people to believe that sidewalk and bike improvements are a waste of money. Most people will not walk or bike along a street that feels unsafe to them, unless they have no choice (i.e. no car). Luckily the planned reconstruction for Rice and Interstate 694 interchange has roundabouts and a mixed-use path proposed, which seems to be more of an improvement for Rice for all users than what is currently seen at Highway 36.

Add More Lanes or Add More Options?

When a roadway is congested, our usual approach is to expand it. This is often not an effective approach, given limited funding makes expansion difficult unless you divest from funding maintenance or borrow money. The current version of H.F. 861 has the state borrowing $600 million for road construction and Corridors of Commerce. Lane expansion can induce demand, therefore negating the relief in congestion seen in the short-term. Much of our infrastructure is outdated and has various safety risks for drivers, which warrants reconstructing it to improve safety when we’re able to, such as adding the concrete barrier on Highway 12. This doesn’t mean we should reward risky driver behavior as a result. The primary reason in crashes tends to be due to driver error, while road design is usually a secondary factor. Aggressive and/or distracted driving, along with alcohol usage are some of the main causes in crashes. Regarding congestion levels for a major metro, Minneapolis-Saint Paul does well compared to our peers, as seen in data from Minnesota Compass. Similar sized metros such as Denver and Seattle have realized their road expansion projects don’t necessarily ease congestion, and most of their citizens voted to support an initiative (FasTracks, ST3) to expand transit in the region through an increase in local taxes. With the CTIB disbanding, Hennepin and Ramsey County will likely follow Denver and Seattle’s footsteps.

Our demand for crude oil relies heavily on Canada to provide us the necessary resources to power our cars and trucks. Relying on a foreign source on a commodity with a finite supply makes it hard to adequately prepare for price fluctuations. Multimodal systems allow us to at least provide alternatives for people to get around when these scenarios occur. We have been finding ways to satisfy our energy demands through more local sources (e.g. Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota), though they have turned out to have catastrophic environmental impacts that will cost the government, taxpayers, and the planet more in the long-run.

Commuters, customers, and any other person that walks, bikes, or takes transit tend to be cheaper to support versus one who is driving. Transit can help relieve transportation costs for people facing cost burdens. Relying on a single mode such as automobiles is expensive and carries multiple indirect costs (parking, pollution, etc.). Investing predominantly on a single mode is not a good long-term investment. Does that mean promoting a train that costs twice as much as an existing line that is proposed to carry less people? That seems to be a hard sell on the legislators who didn’t think the existing light rail lines were a good idea. In contrast, so was a proposal to have Metro Transit to achieve a farebox recovery ratio of 80% or higher by 2022. The mandate on the farebox recovery ratio got added to H.F. 861 (and was reduced down to 40%), but it ultimately was removed as House moved the bill on to the Senate. If increasing that ratio is a priority, then we should look to our Canadian counterparts. Rail does work for them, though they have invested in buses as well with great results for both suburban and urban transit agencies.

Farebox Recovery Ratio (FRR) – Fare Revenue divided by Operating Costs*:

Metro Agency Mode FRR Year Source
Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Transit Bus 24% 2015 Source
Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Transit Light Rail 34% 2015 Source
Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Mobility Dial-A-Ride 13% 2014 Source
Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Transit Commuter Rail 15% 2014 Source
Calgary Calgary Transit Bus + Rail 49% 2012 Source
Denver RTD Bus 25% 2015 Source
Denver RTD Light Rail 34% 2015 Source
Montreal STM Bus + Rail 56% 2015 Source
Seattle Sound Transit Light Rail 28% 2014 Source
Seattle King County Metro Bus 30% 2015 Source
Toronto GO Transit Bus + Rail 78% 2012 Source
Toronto TTC Bus + Rail 70% 2012 Source
Vancouver TransLink Bus + Rail 57% 2012 Source

*This does not include capital costs, and might include other sources of revenue (advertising, parking fees)

Their investment in transit allows them to have higher farebox recovery ratios than Metro Transit. If we truly want Metro Transit to increase its farebox recovery ratios, then cutting their funding is counterproductive. If many legislators do not want to see more light rail (as its capital costs are very high, as Southwest LRT now has a cost of $1.858 billion), then they need to actually promote buses through their omnibus bills so they can be properly funded. Relying on creating new expensive transit corridors to increase ridership may not work out well, though we must improve the transit corridors we already have. Arterial or freeway BRT might be part of the solution, as the A Line was a successful transit investment with a modest capital cost of $27 million. Arterial BRT tends to be more cost-effective given our metro’s population density does make it difficult to support the capital costs of building light rail even within the central cities.

The people who ride with the bus or train are trying to get to where they need to be just like every other driver. They also have jobs (many have multiple to make ends meet), and pay taxes. The “Minnesotan” way to fund transportation is not to exclude Minnesotans from having options on how they get around. Maybe that option isn’t more light rail, but it shouldn’t mean we should siphon our general funds for expanding roads. The general fund is better suited for investing in education and health services. Consistently promoting a transportation choice that we constantly run into issues funding (as funding shortfalls for road expansion were estimated at over $7 billion back in 2001) further necessitates our need for more transportation options.

A special thanks to Anna Gedstad for being an editor on this article.

Al Davison

About Al Davison

Al Davison resides in downtown St Paul. He grew up in Little Canada, and has also lived in Mankato, and Hibbing. He likes looking at spreadsheets and making maps, whether it is for work or for personal projects. He supports new development, especially if it involves sandwich-oriented retail.