The Twin Cities metropolitan area has a complex, multi-tiered structure for planning and implementing public transit improvements. Agencies involved include the Metropolitan Council, the Regional Transit Board (RTB), "opt-out" communities, and the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) and other transit operators. In addition, the area's seven counties are responsible for acquiring right-of-way and planning for new light rail transit lines, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) is involved in planning and constructing highway improvements which may include transit components.
In spite of this level of agency involvement, there have been continuing concerns about transit performance and the adequacy of transit planning. During the 1980s, the Twin Cities area has experienced a substantial decline in bus ridership, growing highway congestion, and only limited suburban transit expansions outside of opt-out communities. In addition, the area has been split by disagreement over the desirability of implementing light rail transit.
This report examines transit planning in the Twin Cities area and addresses the following questions:
In general, we found a planning process which has been dominated in recent years by light rail transit to the exclusion of other transit options such as improved bus service and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. In addition, the growing costs of Metro Mobility have made it difficult for the Regional Transit Board to expand suburban bus service.
Over the last year, however, the Metropolitan Council has taken steps to reorient the planning process and more vigorously oversee the work of the Regional Transit Board. The Council's new facilities plan and the RTB's new transit vision are steps in the right direction, although many of their details will need to be worked out in the next few years.
In 1984, the Legislature created the Regional Transit Board to do short- and mid-range transit planning, contract for transit services, and review and approve transit budgets. The Legislature wanted the RTB to control rising transit costs, respond to growing suburban transit needs, improve oversight of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), and more closely integrate transit into the region's highway planning. In a 1988 evaluation, we concluded that RTB had not yet proven to be an effective problem solver. Now, four years later, we conclude that:
In part, these problems have resulted from factors external to RTB. For example, state funding for transit has been relatively constant in recent years while Metro Mobility costs have grown significantly. The increase in costs has limited RTB's ability to fund service improvements for suburban areas and in the existing regular route system. Some of the increase in Metro Mobility costs is the direct result of RTB's decisions to expand and improve service. However, RTB did not anticipate much of the growth in ridership and costs. In addition, the planning process has been dominated by light rail transit (LRT) in recent years. Considerable staff and board time devoted to LRT has taken time and attention away from other issues.
However, factors within RTB's control have been at work as well. These include: 1) the board's promotion of LRT without adequate examination of the alternatives, 2) the board's attitude toward contracting transit services, 3) continuing internal tension due to the agency having both an executive director and a full-time chair, and 4) the board's unwillingness to control Metro Mobility costs, which led to an expenditure cap being imposed by the 1991 Legislature.
On the positive side, we found that:
RTB recently completed a marketing study to determine reasons for the loss in MTC ridership and identify marketing strategies to address that concern. In addition, RTB's budget for 1992 includes funds to conduct management audits of MTC and funds for MTC to perform a comprehensive operations analysis of MTC routes.
The Metropolitan Council is responsible for long-range planning and policy making for both transit and highways in the Twin Cities area and for overseeing the work of the Regional Transit Board. In our 1988 evaluation, we were critical of the Metropolitan Council's relatively weak oversight of RTB and lack of adequate policy direction for transit and highways.
Since 1988, with adoption of a new transportation policy plan, the Council's planning work and policy direction gradually improved and, in the last year, improved dramatically. We found that:
These recent improvements in Council oversight and leadership have come about in two ways:
The plan is significant in that it recommends an even-handed approach to transit planning. While LRT has dominated planning in recent years, the Council's plan calls for service improvements, minor capital improvements, and major capital projects according to their effectiveness in solving transit and highway problems in various parts of the region.
The plan's specific recommendations for transit improvements should not, however, be viewed as definitive. In developing the plan, staff have not been able to analyze in detail all of the transit options in each highway corridor. For example, staff did not have time to fully analyze the benefits and costs of LRT compared to bus and other options in the Central Corridor between St. Paul and Minneapolis. However, the plan recommends a process -- an alternatives analysis -- through which this important consideration will be examined.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) plays an indirect, but important, role in transit planning. Many transit services and car pools utilize the highways which Mn/DOT is responsible for planning and constructing. As a result, Mn/DOT's cooperation with transit planning agencies is vital in helping them achieve their goals.
We found that:
Mn/DOT has worked with the Metropolitan Council in providing bus and car pool bypass ramps at freeway exits as called for in the Council's 1988 Transportation Policy Plan. Mn/DOT is currently working with MTC on MTC's "Team Transit" project to provide lane and ramp improvements which could help buses reduce their travel time and potentially increase their ridership. Finally, Mn/DOT has constructed high-occupancy vehicle lanes, park-and-ride lots, and transit stations in the I-394 corridor west of downtown Minneapolis and is analyzing HOV lanes, as well as light rail transit, in its planning process for improvements to I-35W from downtown Minneapolis south to the Minnesota River.
We have five types of legislative recommendations, which address: 1) internal RTB structural problems, 2) LRT funding and governance, 3) financial disincentives for automobile use, 4) funding for transit improvements, and 5) the need for oversight of RTB. Regarding RTB's internal structure, we recommend that:
Since its inception, there has been internal tension at RTB because the agency essentially has two heads: an executive director and a full-time chair. This situation is not a viable one for an agency as small as RTB. It will continue to struggle to meet expectations unless it goes forward under strong and consistent leadership.
Second, we recommend that:
The Metropolitan Council's facilities plan shows that, within the next 20 years, only two LRT lines -- the Central Corridor and the I-35W South lines -- have the potential to be cost-effective under reasonable assumptions. Recent studies show that these two lines have a combined projected cost of just under $4.00 per rider -- the maximum permitted by Metropolitan Council policy in order for a line to be considered for implementation before the year 2010. Furthermore, it has yet to be determined how the benefits and costs of a Central Corridor LRT line -- the Council's highest LRT priority -- compare to those for all-bus and other alternatives. As a result, it is important that an alternatives analysis be conducted before more design work continues or construction work begins. An alternatives analysis will also improve the region's chances of maximizing the amount of federal "new start" money which can be received and used to reduce the region's costs of building the line.
The current governance structure for light rail transit planning is dominated by the region's counties and their rail authorities. Their only transit mission is to plan for light rail transit. Considering the new cost per rider estimates for LRT, the need for objective analysis of alternatives, and the need to use regional or state funding to implement LRT -- there is a need to reorient the governance structure to ensure that regional goals are met and that spending on additional lines is not continued. We are generally supportive of the Metropolitan Council's proposed governance structure. That proposal would place RTB in charge of the alternatives analysis, Mn/DOT in charge of design and construction, and MTC in charge of operations. However, given the counties' leadership on LRT issues, the Legislature should consider ways in which the counties can be given a meaningful role in the design and construction of LRT, while assuring regional control over important decisions.
We also recommend that:
A modest increase in automobile user costs through additional gasoline taxes or other taxes or fees may help to limit future growth in automobile travel and would better reflect some of the regional costs of automobile use. It would also make sense to use a portion of any tax or fee increase to help fund transit improvements or relieve some of the current burden on property taxes. However, Constitutional limitations and budgetary constraints will affect the options available to the Legislature.
If transit programs are allotted funds from a new funding source, it is essential that the Legislature retain control over transit funding and not provide transit agencies with an unlimited source of dedicated funding. Many of the recommendations in the Council's new facilities plan and RTB's new vision are conceptual and lack ridership estimates and other details which would help in determining their cost-effectiveness. Legislative oversight of these agencies' recommendations is needed before transit funding is substantially increased. The Legislature should take an incremental approach and fund some improvements while requiring the agencies to report back on their progress in developing more detailed plans and ridership estimates. We recommend that:
We also recommend that the Legislature strengthen oversight of RTB in the following ways:
We recommend that:
In addition, even without specific legislative authorization, we recommend that:
Also, in formulating regional policy on highway and transit development, the Council should consider the extent to which automobile users are not directly paying the full costs of automobile use. We recommend that the Metropolitan Council: 1) determine the extent to which automobile users do not directly pay for the costs imposed on the region from automobile use, 2) examine the potential effect on automobile and transit use from raising automobile ownership and operation costs through additional taxes or other methods, and 3) study the impact which such action might have on future development patterns.
Regional Transit Board
The Regional Transit Board has made only slow progress in achieving the goals envisioned when it was established. Improvement has been made since mid-1991, but it remains to be seen whether such improvement will be sustained. The RTB's Vision for Transit has conceptual appeal, but lacks important details. It is unclear at this point how much of the vision should be implemented. It is also unclear how the results of needs assessments and MTC's comprehensive operations analysis will affect the vision.
Despite reservations, we believe RTB should continue to exist in its current form. The separation of planning and operations has had some desirable effects and remains a good concept. However, RTB needs to continue the progress of the last eight months and demonstrate to the Legislature that RTB can be an effective problem solver. RTB can best develop this trust by being a fair and objective planning agency. Advocacy on behalf of transit is best based on sound and thoughtful analysis. Specifically, we recommend that: