Alex Burns is the Advocacy and Policy Manager at Our Streets Minneapolis, which is a grassroots advocacy organization that works toward a transportation system where people can comfortably and conveniently walk, roll, bike and use public transit.
The 2023 Minnesota legislative session just concluded on May 22. The “transformational” session delivered many landmark pieces of legislation that will shape Minnesota’s future for decades, including a transportation funding and policy bill (full bill text found here) that allocates up to $9 billion in state funds for transportation projects.
The transportation bill will significantly increase investment in walking, rolling, biking and transit access. It includes:
- A new 3/4-cent metro-wide sales tax increase that will provide long-term, dedicated funding to expand and increase frequency in the Twin Cities regional transit system.
- $60 million annually for walking, rolling and biking infrastructure (allocated from the aforementioned sales tax increase).
- New requirements that future highway expansion projects align with the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.
- Investments in passenger rail, including funding for the new Northern Lights Express between Duluth and Minneapolis.
- An electric bicycle rebate of up to $1,500 per buyer.
- More than $150 million in funding for Metro Mobility.
This bill is a great step forward and was years overdue — but is not without cause for concern, because the vast majority of the new funding ($7 billion out of $9 billion total) will be spent on roads, bridges and highways.
The impact of this bill on creating a more sustainable, equitable and accessible transportation system will be determined by its implementation. The next few years are critical.
Here are five focus areas that elected officials and transportation department staff must prioritize in order for the transportation bill to deliver on its potential to transform mobility in Minnesota.
1. Reallocate Street Space from Cars
Creating a transportation system where people can comfortably walk, roll, bike and take public transportation to their daily destinations requires more than just funding. It also necessitates de-prioritizing personal automobiles. All too often, new transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects are designed to minimize inconvenience for drivers. If that doesn’t change, transportation habits never will.
Recent examples abound. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s decision to veto 24/7 bus lanes on Hennepin Avenue South will undercut the speed and reliability of the upcoming E Line bus rapid transit (BRT). The E Line will also run through downtown Minneapolis on Hennepin Avenue, where bus lanes are arguably most needed. However, bus lanes were never even considered there out of fear of upsetting downtown corporations and building owners.
During planning for the Riverview Corridor, which seeks to connect downtown St. Paul and the Mall of America with a new rapid transit line, Ramsey County made the decision to pursue a streetcar with minimal dedicated right-of-way as opposed to light rail to minimize the loss of car lanes and street parking. This has almost certainly doomed the project’s chances of obtaining highly competitive federal funding. Even if it were built, the end result would be a nearly $2 billion streetcar line plagued with traffic delays.
If we are serious about creating a world-class transit system, then bi-directional, full-time dedicated transit lanes that encompass entire routes should be standard for every new rapid transit line. Metro Transit’s stated goal when upgrading a local bus route to arterial BRT is to improve end-to-end speed by 20%. However, a 20% speed increase should be the bare minimum, not the end goal. Metro Transit and its city, county and state partners should do everything possible to ensure that transit is as fast, convenient and reliable as possible.
2. Stem the Tide of Urban Highway Expansion and Start Removing Them
Despite its significant investments in walking, biking and transit infrastructure, the transportation bill continues a troubling trend of pumping billions of dollars into highway projects. Nearly 78% of the bill’s $9 billion in total investment will be spent on roads, highways and bridges. A whopping $2.3 billion was allocated for highway repair and expansion. The gas tax, which is constitutionally dedicated to be spent on roads and bridges, was indexed to inflation. Another $50 million was allocated to the Corridors of Commerce program, which funds highway projects that add vehicle capacity.
This new revenue, combined with abundant funding from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, means that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has a treasure trove of funds to fast-track highway rebuilds and expansions. This is good news for the bevy of highway construction and consulting firms from the Transportation Alliance that lobbied hard for and will profit from the focus on expansion. But increasing lane miles and rebuilding existing roadways ignores the root cause of our transportation conundrum: Minnesota already has a grossly overbuilt road network, the fourth largest by mileage in the United States. Roads and bridges are breaking down because Minnesota, like many other states, has opted to spend billions on expanding roadways instead of fixing existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, more car and truck infrastructure would spell disaster for the climate, public health and racial equity.
In fairness, the bill did add some important protections against highway expansion but they do not go far enough. The rule (which can be found at line 107.7 of the bill text) requires MnDOT to assess the impacts of a project on state climate and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) goals and perform mitigation measures only if the project adds travel lanes. A project that reconstructs a freeway with the same number of lanes is exempt, even though it will likely mean 60-plus more years of greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention air pollution, noise and human carnage) over that project’s lifespan.
Furthermore, the rule does not take effect until 2025 and applies only to projects that have not yet entered the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which includes planned projects over a four-year period. Many highway expansion projects, such as I-94/252, where MnDOT seeks to build a new freeway through Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park and expand I-94 through North Minneapolis, are already in the STIP and so won’t be impacted by the new law. Over the course of the next year and a half, MnDOT will almost certainly try to add more expansion projects into the STIP to bypass the new climate rules. Even after the rule takes effect, MnDOT engineers will likely use bad faith climate arguments to justify highway expansion projects, claiming that increased electrification, reduced congestion and new managed lanes will reduce emissions. MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council’s Twin Cities Highway Mobility Needs Analysis is an example of this. The report advocates spending billions on metro-area highway expansion over the next two decades, and claims that such projects would benefit the environment and public health.
Elected officials clearly want to integrate climate and environmental justice into transportation planning and they can use the 2024 session to build on this law. The rule should apply to all major highway projects, not just those that add lanes. MnDOT should also be required to consider induced demand and its counterpart, traffic evaporation, in its modeling.
The good news is that many of the highway dollars, including federal funds, are flexible and can be used to repair the harms of urban highways. Other states like New York and California have used highway funds to remove urban highways and convert them into walkable urban boulevards. There is no reason why MnDOT couldn’t use the influx of new highway dollars to truly “rethink I-94” and transform the freeway trench between the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul into a walkable urban boulevard, featuring new rapid transit, parks, affordable housing and locally owned businesses. MnDOT could also fund the removal of Olson Memorial Highway and the restoration of 6th Avenue North, for which the Minneapolis City Council recently unanimously expressed support.
3. Anti-Displacement and Community Benefit Protections Must Be Integrated into Major Transportation Projects
Without proper protections, new transit lines and street transformations can cause gentrification (even before they are built), displacing the residents that they were originally intended to serve. Every community deserves to have walkable access to daily needs, high-quality parks, bike paths and public transit. Major transportation projects must feature intentional policies, programs and protections to ensure that existing residents are fully engaged with, are not displaced by, and benefit from the project.
An example is the Metro Transit Blue Line Light Rail Extension project, which is now planned to run along West Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. The Blue Line Coalition, which includes residents, community organizations and other stakeholders from along the project corridor, has been organizing for anti-displacement policies and community benefit programs to be created and fully implemented before project construction begins. The coalition’s website states “Our communities have a right to the highest quality transit project and safety improvements — and strong protections to make sure our families are NOT pushed out of their neighborhoods and that immigrant, refugee, BIPOC and low-wealth residents and businesses directly benefit from these new investments.”
Recently, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban Affairs (CURA) unveiled its anti-displacement policy recommendations report, which outlines 28 policies for policy makers to implement along the Blue Line Extension corridor. The report’s recommendations make it clear that early implementation is critical, urging that “the majority of anti-displacement policies need to be implemented prior to construction.” Members of the Blue Line Coalition are now calling on project decision makers to adopt, fund and swiftly implement the recommended policies.
Regrettably, while the transportation bill includes $50 million in funding for continued planning for the Blue Line project, no funding was included to advance anti-displacement policies or community benefit programs, like those outlined in the CURA report.
Transit investments like the Blue Line Extension are opportunities to improve mobility for working class people, create economic opportunity, reduce pollution, improve health outcomes and create abundance in neighborhoods that have long been marginalized and left under-invested. However, it is unacceptable for any project to move forward without first fully funding and implementing policies and protections to ensure that the project does not continue a long history of transportation projects that cause displacement, division and divestment in communities of color. Anti-displacement work cannot be delayed and must occur with a clear public timeline.
4. Prioritize Investments Where They Are Most Needed (and Don’t Fall for the Highway BRT Trap)
Transit planners should resist the urge to spend funding on highway bus rapid transit projects. Such projects, like the Orange Line, were used as a political tool to pitch suburban legislators on an increased sales tax for transit. However, highway BRT has major downsides that limit its cost-effectiveness and its ability to support car-free, or even car-light, lifestyles. Highway BRT lines limit the accessibility of the station areas because they are located in the least desirable place to walk imaginable: the center of a freeway. The land immediately adjacent to the stations that would be best suited for housing and businesses is occupied by lanes of roaring traffic. Highway BRT lines often include massive park-and-ride facilities near suburban stations (which studies have found to encourage car use).
Proponents of highway BRT projects argue that they are faster than light rail alternatives and can be built at a fraction of the cost. However they also produce a fraction of the ridership and other community benefits that light rail and non-highway, “arterial” BRT offer. The Orange Line cost $150 million to construct. A year and half since it opened, average daily ridership for the Orange Line has hovered just above 1,000. This is merely 5% of the daily ridership for the Green and Blue Lines and only one-third of the A Line’s ridership, which is currently the lowest ridership arterial bus rapid transit line. Highway BRT projects are also used to greenwash future highway reconstruction and expansion projects. The concept of BRT was created and pushed by Big Oil to undercut electric rail projects and preserve road space for automobiles. Construction of the Orange Line coincided with the expansion of I-35W. The Red Line was built to access federal funding to pay for the expansion of Highway 77. MnDOT is almost certain to include a new highway BRT line in the upcoming project options for Rethinking I-94, and will argue that it is the best option for transit riders because the bus travels at highway speeds.
Highway BRT lines indeed create fast end-to-end service, but their cost goes beyond the price of construction. In the case of I-35W, surrounding communities are now stuck with a wider freeway, more traffic noise, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and divided neighborhoods for another half century. Our region can and should do better.
The significant increase in transit funding comes at an opportune time, as Metro Transit is reassessing future funding priorities via its Network Now initiative. Instead of wasting funding on highway BRT projects, the bulk of transit dollars should be prioritized for communities that will eagerly use them. This includes communities with large populations of existing transit users, dense housing and walkable street grids. New suburban transit lines should be routed along arterial streets that serve urban neighborhoods. Station area zoning should support dense housing and walkable businesses instead of park-and-rides. The transit system should be oriented to support fast and convenient access to the entire urban core instead of over-prioritizing the 9-5 downtown commute. Metro Transit’s 2022 ridership summary makes it clear that remote work has significantly shifted travel trends. The transit system of the future should provide fast and convenient service for all trip types at all times of the day.
5. Build with Urgency
Last but not least, state and local transportation leaders must rapidly build out new pedestrian, biking and transit infrastructure. Metro Transit has completed a new BRT line every two to three years. Cities are trickling out new protected bikeways at a rate that will take decades to fully build out their bike plans. These are great achievements but are coming on line far too slowly. Funding from the transportation bill can be used to speed up these projects.
Time is of the essence. Transportation is Minnesota’s biggest greenhouse gas emissions sector. It was recently reported that climate scientists believe the Earth likely will surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming within the next five years. While rapid electrification is vital, it is not enough to achieve necessary emissions reductions. Analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute shows that the United States needs to reduce driving, as measured by “vehicle miles traveled” or “VMT,” by 20 percent before 2030 in order to maintain a path to limit warming to 1.5°C. Both the Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have determined that rapid reductions in VMT are necessary to meet their climate goals. The Minneapolis Climate Action Plan aims to reduce VMT by 38% by 2050. The St. Paul Climate Action & Resilience Plan includes a goal to reduce VMT by 2.5% annually.
Rapid implementation will also save lives. Traffic deaths in Minnesota and across the country continue to rise, despite state and local initiatives to reduce and/or eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries. The City of Minneapolis has committed to eliminating all traffic deaths and severe injuries (excluding those that occur on freeways) by 2027. However, a shortage of funding and lack of political will has prevented the necessary street design changes from being implemented. Boston recently unveiled plans to implement 500 speed bumps and dozens of intersection improvements each year. Meanwhile Minneapolis selected just 16 traffic-calming projects for implementation this year, a mere 2% of the 774 applications submitted by residents. State funding from the transportation bill is a key opportunity to accelerate traffic calming in Minneapolis and communities across the state.
For too long, people without cars have dealt with an inadequate transportation system that treats them like second-class citizens. Funding in the Minnesota transportation bill makes it possible to staff projects and rapidly build out the infrastructure necessary—from heated bus shelters to hundreds of miles of concrete-protected bikeways—to decarbonize transportation, eliminate traffic deaths and give everyone comfortable and convenient mobility options.
The Paris bike boom is just one of many examples of how previously unimaginable, rapid transformations are possible. The Minnesota transportation bill has created an opportunity for our state to set a global example of a sustainable and equitable transportation system. Now is the time to make it a reality.