Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor
Program Evaluation Division

Menu

Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor Menu

Regional Transit Planning

Summary

March 1992


Summary

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:

  • What progress has the Regional Transit Board made in planning for and implementing cost-effective transit service improvements, as well as providing oversight of existing transit operations?
  • Has the Metropolitan Council provided adequate long-range planning and policy direction for transit and highway improvements?
  • Has the Minnesota Department of Transportation appropriately integrated transit into its highway planning and construction activities?
  • Has transit planning become too fragmented and are structural changes needed to improve planning?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Metropolitan Council's new Regional Transit Facilities Plan and the Regional Transit Board's new Vision for Transit?

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.

Regional Transit Board

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:

  • Although creation of the Regional Transit Board was a good idea, the Board's progress has not lived up to expectations in several key areas.
  • Progress in some key areas has been slow and problems remain, but there have been some encouraging signs recently.
  • The major problems with RTB's past performance are:
  • There has been little progress in responding to growing suburban transit needs outside of opt-out communities.
  • RTB has been slow to provide adequate oversight of the Metropolitan Transit Commission despite substantial declines in regular route ridership.
  • RTB still does not have an adequate policy on competitive bidding of bus service and has allowed MTC to provide a significant amount of peak-hour express service outside MTC's exclusive service area despite significant questions regarding MTC's relative efficiency in providing that service.
  • RTB has not provided needed leadership from a regional perspective on light rail transit, and has focused too much on expensive transit options and too little on relatively inexpensive solutions.

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 adopted new plans which attempt to improve suburban transit service and control Metro Mobility expenditures.
  • RTB is developing five transit hubs in suburban locations and has experimented with four new suburban services which are either circulators or general purpose dial-a-rides.
  • Despite turnover, RTB has a strong staff which has laid a good foundation for the future with the work it has done on various planning projects and in contract management.
  • Since mid-1991, the Board has shown more interest in overseeing MTC as well as assisting it in improving ridership and efficiency.

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.

Metropolitan Council

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:

  • Until last year, the Metropolitan Council did not provide adequate oversight of the Regional Transit Board.
  • Until this year, the Metropolitan Council did not provide sufficient leadership in formulating a long-range vision for transit in the region.

These recent improvements in Council oversight and leadership have come about in two ways:

  • The Metropolitan Council and its staff provided significant oversight of RTB through the Council's review of the RTB's Five Year Plan in May 1991.
  • The Metropolitan Council and its staff have provided significant leadership for future transit and highway improvements with the recent adoption of its Regional Transit Facilities Plan.

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.

Minnesota Department of Transportation

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 been receptive to transit issues and has incorporated various transit options into its highway plans.

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.

Recommendations

Legislature

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:

  • The Legislature should either make the position of RTB chair a part-time one or permit the chair to select the executive director with the board's approval.

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 Legislature should not fund construction of LRT in the Central Corridor until a satisfactory alternatives analysis has been prepared.
  • The Legislature should change the governance structure for light rail transit planning to provide for more regional control of the process while continuing to involve county railroad authorities in a meaningful way.

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:

  • The Legislature should examine options for increasing automobile user costs to better reflect the costs to the region of automobile travel.

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:

  • The Legislature should be generally supportive of the concepts contained in the Metropolitan Council's facilities plan.
  • However, the Legislature should require RTB and the Council to provide information on the potential cost-effectiveness of the recommended service improvements and transit hub projects.

We also recommend that the Legislature strengthen oversight of RTB in the following ways:

  • The Legislature should require RTB to prepare an annual performance report for existing transit services and submit the report to the Metropolitan Council for its review and comment.
  • The Legislature should require RTB to report at least annually on its progress in implementing its five-year plan and submit the report to the Metropolitan Council for its review and comment.
  • The Legislature should give the Metropolitan Council authority to review and approve RTB's annual capital budget and review and comment on RTB's annual operating budget.

Metropolitan Council

We recommend that:

  • The Metropolitan Council continue the strong oversight and leadership it has shown over the last year.

In addition, even without specific legislative authorization, we recommend that:

  • The Metropolitan Council should consider requiring RTB to prepare: 1) an annual transit performance report, 2) an annual progress report on plan implementation, and 3) cost per rider estimates for the new services and other mass transit improvements recommended in the Council's new plan and RTB's new vision.

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:

  • RTB should adopt a competitive bidding policy which adequately addresses the costing method MTC should use when bidding to provide transit services outside its exclusive service area.
  • RTB should undertake the proposed management audits of MTC and review the comprehensive operations analysis of MTC when completed. RTB should ultimately identify any resources which can be freed up to provide needed service improvements.
  • RTB should examine the need for and potential cost-effectiveness of the service improvements and hubs recommended in the Metropolitan Council's facilities plan. Not all of the hubs and accompanying circulator and express routes may be cost-effective.
  • RTB should prepare an annual performance report which provides performance statistics for each route and type of service funded by RTB.
  • RTB should continue its recent efforts to work cooperatively with the opt-out providers and assist them in competitively bidding out transit services when their current contracts end.
  • RTB should work with MTC to strengthen the region's efforts to encourage ridesharing or consider moving Minnesota Rideshare to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

 

 

Office of the Legislative Auditor ♦ Room 140, 658 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55155