Buses, trains, bridges, highways: ‘It’s all about connecting people’

But are low-income people and people of color connecting with planners?


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


The Metropolitan Council and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) throughout the month of December have held town hall meetings around the Twin Cities metro area. “We know that jobs, businesses and our quality of life are going to depend upon this interconnected [transit] system,” proclaimed MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle at the December 10 meeting at St. Paul Union Depot.

“It’s not just LRT (light rail transit) or fast lane or a county road. It’s all this connected together that makes our Minnesota work well.”

Attendees of December 10 Met Council/MnDot meeting; Vaughn Larry, wearing black, is seated at center of photo. Photo by Charles Hallman
Attendees of December 10 Met Council/MnDot meeting; Vaughn Larry, wearing black, is seated at center of photo. Photo by Charles Hallman

The commissioner told the 30-plus persons who attended last week’s meeting that 50 percent of the state highways and 35 percent of state bridges are over 50 years old. He estimates at least $12 billion alone “over the next 20 years” is needed for maintenance and improvement costs.

“It is our belief at MnDOT that highways and bridges alone don’t solve the mobility issue,” continued Zelle. “It actually requires high-speed, high-density lanes, transit corridors, [and] other ways to manage the flow of people.”

“Transit really is about connecting people,” stated Metropolitan Council Chair Sue Haigh. “It’s about connecting people to where they want to go — going to school, or going to work… Are they going to visit family? We know that 80 percent of the people who get on the bus or train in our system are going to work or going to school, so it’s very critical in our ability to get people to work and for employers to recruit their workers to come work for them,” she explained.

Haigh reported that there are approximately 94 million “rides” per year, and 80 percent of these rides took people to and from work and school in 2012. She also pointed out that the Central Corridor and Southwest LRT projects combined created over 7,500 jobs.

“People all over this state worked on these two projects,” she said. Both officials also stressed the need for more transportation investments.

“We have to adapt for our future,” believes Zelle of his department’s statewide transit plans, adding that it is expected that at least 900,000 people will be living in the Twin Cities metro area by 2040. “It’s a daunting challenge on how we’ll

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh (l) and MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle Photo by Charles Hallman
Met Council Chair Sue Haigh (l) and MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle
Photo by Charles Hallman

handle that amount of traffic. Our demographics are changing.”

“We know people are going to come here from different places,” Haigh pointed out. “We are going to get more diverse.”

Both officials support Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal for a seven-county, Twin Cities metro-wide half-cent transit sales tax. “We think the sales tax is an effective mechanism,” noted Haigh. “It was passed by the [Minnesota State] Senate but didn’t succeed in the House [in the last legislative session].”

One St. Paul resident asked the two officials if their present and future transit plans include low-income and unemployed folk, especially in off-peak times, and weekend transportation needs: “They have to get back and forth in a reliable way.”

“It’s a very complex issue but certainly one that we are trying to work on,” said Haigh, adding that “a broader investment [is needed] in transit in order to extend service on existing routes — have it be more frequent on weekends as well as during the week. We don’t have a frequent [bus] service on the weekends…and we know that really impacts choices that people can make in their lives.”

Last week’s meeting was attended almost entirely by Whites. Vaughn Larry of the Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation in St. Paul was the only Black participant. He asked Zelle and Haigh, “Is there any way we can make walking safer here in the metro or state-wide? If you really want to know how your transportation system runs, just look outside the window. I don’t drive. Walking is the first mode of transportation.”

The MSR afterwards asked Larry if the two officials satisfactorily answered his question. “It could [have been] better,” he said. He also remarked on the notable absence of more Blacks at the meeting.

“It bothered me,” admitted Larry. “I know everybody that I see most of the time on the bus is somebody of color. Sometimes folks got one or more jobs, so they are not able to come to these meetings [when scheduled]. The reason why I’m here is because I can bring that information back to my people and disseminates the information. Then they can make better informed choices.”

The MSR also asked Haigh to comment on the complaint that Blacks did not get many of those nearly 10,000 light rail transit construction jobs she had boasted of earlier. “We set very aggressive workforce participation goals and DBE goals,” she replied. “We have met and exceeded all of those goals. We have a very, very strong track record and it is very important to me, personally. It is very important to us as an organization.”

Zelle also was asked about MnDOT’s commitment to workforce diversity on large-scale transit projects: “It is in our best interest that we want to recruit and be able to have a diverse workforce, and a diverse contracting group. We’ve had a very negative legislative audit, so I appointed a new [civil rights office] manager. I am actually committed to working with our staff there to help improve our processes. I think we can do a better job.”

Asked if that same level of commitment to improve service would be maintain

ed even if no additional funding is provided, she said, “We try to have an efficient system with the resources that we have, but if we don’t have additional resources, we really are not going to be able to grow and expand service on weekends, later in the evenings, more frequent service and more routes.”


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