here for PDF format
Participants' Responses to this
of Meeting with Peter Bell
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, April 18, 2008
chair, Metropolitan Council
Johnson, chair; Charles Clay, Jim Hetland, Paul Gilje, Jim Olson (by
phone), Wayne Popham (by phone), and John Rollwagen (by phone)
Context of the meeting--The
Civic Caucus is conducting several meetings to learn how priorities are
set for highway and transit projects among various governmental
jurisdictions in Minnesota, local, county, regional, state and federal.
Today's meeting concerns the role of the Metropolitan Council.
Welcome and introduction--Verne
welcomed today's thought leader, Peter Bell, chair of the Metropolitan
Council. Bell was appointed chair by Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2003 and
reappointed in 2007. Prior to his appointment Bell, a former consultant
on alcohol and drug abuse, was executive vice president for publishing and
educational services at Hazelden. Before that he was executive vice
president for corporate community relations for TCF Bank, Minneapolis.
He served of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents from 2002 to
Background on transportation role of the Metropolitan Council (information
from its website)--The
Metropolitan Council is responsible for regional transportation planning
including aviation, highway, and transit systems as well as transit
operations. The Council is the designated Metropolitan Planning
Organization (MPO) for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which means it
is required by the federal government to provide a continuing,
coordinated, comprehensive transportation planning process.
Federal law and
regulation require that every metropolitan area over 50,000 population
must have a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and a continuing,
coordinated and comprehensive transportation planning process in order to
receive any federal transportation funds. These regulations, which have
been in place since the early 1970's, were designed to ensure that urban
areas develop plans and programs that address identified transportation
needs in the area, and are consistent with the overall planned development
of the urbanized area. Since federal regulations require the participation
of local elected officials, the Transportation Advisory Board (which
consists primarily of local elected officials) together with the
Metropolitan Council, composes the MPO for the Twin Cities area.
The Council must
prepare a long range (20 year) transportation plan for the region every 4
years (current plan adopted December 2004.). It is also responsible for
the selection of projects for federal funding and the preparation of a
three-year transportation improvement program (TIP). This is done through
the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), made up of local elected
officials, and its Technical Advisory Committee. The process to develop
the TIP includes broad citizen and interested group input.
1. Transit Planning --The Council
performs long-range transit planning activities for implementation of the
policy direction established in its 2030 Regional Development Framework
and the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan, including coordination work with
all transit operators in the region and working with the Minnesota
Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Metro Transit and the county
regional rail authorities on planning, environmental and engineering
studies for several transitway corridors.
2. Highway Planning--The Council
participates with MnDOT and the counties in highway planning activities to
ensure implementation of the policy direction established by the Council
in the Regional Development Framework and the Transportation Policy Plan.
This includes participation in several interagency corridor studies and
administration of the Right-of-Way Acquisition Loan Fund (RALF), which
gives communities no-interest loans to purchase right-of-way for principal
arterials and other trunk highways in advance of the time that MnDOT would
be in a position to make the purchase.
Comments and discussion--During
Bell's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Transit funding sources--Bell
outlined funding sources for transit funding, as essential background for
understanding how priorities are set:
sales tax--The 2008 Legislature authorized counties in the
metropolitan area to levy a quarter-cent sales tax for planning,
construction and operation of transitways (LRT, commuter rail, and bus
rapid transit), and for construction of park-and-ride facilities. . Five
counties (Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington) agreed to
impose the tax, which is anticipated produce about $100 million a year.
The 2008 Legislature approved a one-time appropriation of $30 million from
the tax to help cover a bus-rail operating deficit (difference between
fares revenue and other available revenue from state sources and operating
b. Share of state
motor vehicle sales tax (MVST)--Metro transit receives a share
of revenue from the state sales tax on motor vehicles, under a
constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2006. In 2012,
when fully phased in, MVST revenue is expected to yield $500 million
annually, of which highways (state, county and municipal) will receive 60
percent; metro transit, 36 percent, and non-metro transit, 4 percent. MVST
originally was expected to yield $670 million annually, but those
estimates were based on more optimistic projections of price and number of
vehicle purchases. MVST funds may be used for either capital or
operating expense for transit.
c. State general
revenues--The Legislature can appropriate funds for capital or
operating expense for transit. For example, the Legislature appropriated
$70 million for the current biennium.
d. Regional property
tax--The Metropolitan Council levies a property tax on the
seven-county region to pay the principal and interest on bonds it issues
to pay for buying buses. These funds are used primarily for capital,
with a small amount for administrative expense. About $32 million a year
now comes from the regional property tax to be used for retiring transit
bonds. The Metropolitan Council also issues bonds for parks and sewers.
e. Federal funds--The
federal government provides up to 50 percent of the cost of approved
transit projects, including light rail. About $450 million in federal
funds is anticipated for the Central Corridor light rail project along
University Avenue between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Federal funds are limited to capital expense for transit
fares yield approximately 30 percent of the Metropolitan Council's annual
transit budget of $325 million. Fares are covering about 40 percent of
the operating expense of the Hiawatha light rail line, and slightly less
than 30 percent of the operating expense of buses, he said. Fare box
revenues are used for operating expense.
2. Too few dollars for bus operations; too many
dollars for rail construction?--Bell has concerns about revenue
as a result of the 2008 Legislature's authorizing counties a quarter-penny
sales tax, mainly for rail and transitways construction.
federal government won't allow its funds to be used for transit systems
that cut back on regular bus service to help pay for new rail
construction, Bell said. Thus an anticipated $450 million for the Central
Corridor could be in jeopardy if the federal government found that Metro
Transit in the Twin Cities area was reducing bus service to find money to
Metro Transit is short of funds for bus operations, partly because MVST
revenue is lower than projected. The Legislature--with apparent county
support--was very specific that the quarter-penny sales tax shouldn't be
used for bus operations. But what happens, he asked, if Metro Transit is
short on dollars from other funds and can't tap into the sales tax
revenue? If Metro Transit needs to cut bus service, the result could be
that federal matching dollars for rail construction won't be forthcoming.
be justified, he said, for the Central Corridor, for a Southwest Corridor,
and for Bottineau Boulevard to the North, along with bus transitways for
35W and Cedar Avenue. Beyond these routes it is very hard to make a case
for light rail, he said.
a system where the bus does all the heavy lifting, and he's worried that
the sales tax receipts will be inefficiently used.
projects need the support of the Metropolitan Council, he noted, because
such projects must be consistent with the Council's transportation policy
make sense to have two power centers for transit, endlessly bickering over
who will pay the operating expense, he said.
3. Current ridership figures discussed--About
89.3 million passengers rode transit in the metro area in 2007, including
the Metropolitan Council's metro transit, six independent suburban
systems, contracted routes, and Metro Mobility, Bell said. About 77
million passengers were for the Metropolitan Council's metro transit. Bell
expects metro transit to increase to 80 million passengers this year.
is the "workhorse" of the transit system--The bus is and will
remain the workhorse of the transit system, Bell said, and he is very
worried about over-funding rail construction and under-funding bus
operations. We're close to spending $1 billion on the Central Corridor
and conceivably would need to cut buses on existing routes, which is
"dumb", he said.
5. Relative need for the Central Corridor--Bell
said the Twin Cities area needs a rail "spine", which is what the Central
Corridor LRT route would be, connecting the two downtowns, he said.
Other routes can feed into it. Asked what need the Central Corridor
route will fill,
replied that the Metropolitan Council simply
could not put enough buses on the street to serve projected ridership in
2020 and beyond. In an alternatives analysis, it was determined that even
if the Council invested in bus rapid transit, it could accommodate no more
than 31,200 riders per day. LRT is projected to serve 38,000 riders per
weekday in 2020 and 44,000 riders in 2030 (and could accommodate even more
by going from two-car to three-car trains).
the discussion of needs, Bell was asked whether congestion relief is part
of the equation. He replied that his first goal is effective
transportation for transit-dependent individuals. It is vital for a
strong economy that we provide access for people to jobs, health care, and
schools. Congestion relief is an important, but secondary objective.
6. Directing development not a big objective
for the Central Corridor--It was noted that some others have
said the main goal of the Central Corridor LRT is to influence
development Bell said there are many more effective ways to guide
development than LRT. The main objective is to provide transportation, he
7. Challenges to assumptions on effectiveness of the
Central Corridor in providing improved transportation--Bell
said he is unaware of challenges to the effectiveness of the Central
Corridor in improved transportation that appear in an analysis of the
Central Corridor by a local volunteer, Scott Halstead. Halstead has
claimed only marginal improvements of speed and transit capacity from the
Central Corridor LRT.
8. Critical importance to LRT of maintaining bus service--Responding
to a question on clarification,
Bell emphasized that
the metro area will forego millions of dollars in federal aid for rail if
the area is forced to reduce bus service to balance its operating budget.
pointed out to Bell that Congressman Jim Oberstar has pledged that the
criteria for rail systems in metropolitan areas will be rewritten in
2009. Bell replied that irrespective of who has political control of
Congress and the Presidency, there are far too many applications--and
others expected--to ever receive the funding that will be sought. Thus,
it always will be necessary to set priorities and that will require
9. Bell still optimistic about funding bus
service--Notwithstanding the difficulties, Bell said he is
optimistic that Metro Transit will be able to fund operating expenses
without cutting service, through a combination of increased fares, dipping
into reserves, and getting some additional help from the Legislature.
he would like very much to expand bus service. Plans for such expansion,
still unfunded, have been prepared by Brian Lamb, general manager of Metro
Transit. However, at the present time there's no way to provide the
money. Earlier, when MVST was anticipated to yield much more than now
anticipated, the Metropolitan Council hoped to use MVST funds for bus
10. Difficulty in expanding the geographic area of the
response to a question Bell acknowledged that need for urban services,
including transit, extend beyond the seven-county borders of the
Metropolitan Council. He doesn't see any way politically for the Council
to be enlarged geographically at this point. Nevertheless, he is hoping
that some park and ride lots along with bus routes will be able to be
established outside the seven-county area.
11. Dual transit policy structure problematic
--Bell was asked whether it would be possible in the Twin
Cities area to maintain a permanent arrangement with the county joint
powers board responsible for rail transit and the Metropolitan Council
responsible for bus transit. He said he is concerned there would be
ongoing disagreement between the two organizations over what should be
built. Moreover, he believes the region must have an integrated transit
Metropolitan Council will be able to pay, perhaps, 50 percent of the
operating expense for rail service that is built with the metro counties'
new quarter-cent sales tax revenue source, he said. If the Council
refuses to share in the operating expense, counties might want to go
totally independent, which would be problematic for the region, he said.
acknowledged that the counties, having been made responsible for levying
the new sales tax, have a legitimate right for some policy involvement..
time being Bell thinks the best strategy for dealing with questions about
transit governing structure is to pause and let things sort themselves
out. As chair of the Metropolitan Council, Bell said he has a seat on
the county joint powers transit board.
Caucus member recalled that the Metropolitan Council was deliberately
created in 1967 without giving membership to local units of government,
including counties. An earlier Metropolitan Planning Commission was made
up of local officials and, as a consequence, lacked the ability to develop
an areawide consensus.
replied that he doesn't fault the counties for pushing, now, for more
transit revenue, because the need is severe. He only faults the counties
for pushing for only capital and operating funds for transitways, not for
12. Federal priority-setting criteria will
remain--Discussing again a
likely change in a cost-effectiveness index used by the Federal Transit
Administration to rank various proposed rail transit projects, Bell said
that currently there probably are $7 in requests for every $1 available.
So regardless of who is in charge in Washington, D.C., there'll be a
significant priority-setting process. If more money is made available,
more requests will be forthcoming.
that a shortcoming of the federal process currently is that receipt of
funds is an all-or-nothing experience. Either a metro area meets criteria
and, thereby, receives a 50 percent grant, or it receives nothing. Bell
thinks that some higher-priority projects could receive as much as 60
percent and lower-priority projects, as little as 40 percent. Such
flexibility would help some metropolitan areas, including the Twin Cities,
because they wouldn't have to take extraordinary measures to fit the
federal criteria. Currently, major adjustments have been made in the
Central Corridor, for example, to meet all federal requirements.
13. Need for Central Corridor project--The
group returned to a brief discussion of the need for the Central Corridor
project. It was noted that Bell said earlier that buses can't accommodate
a projected total of 44,000 passengers a day in the Central Corridor.
When the LRT is built in this corridor, Bell agreed that some of the LRT
passengers will have been previous passengers on bus routes (on University
Avenue and on I-94), although some bus routes on University Avenue and
I-94 will remain. Bell said he didn't have at his fingertips the number
of LRT riders who previously would have been riding the bus. He said
that LRT is more eco-friendly and also offers more economic development
14. Likelihood for legislative approval of Central
thinks an agreement can be reached before the close of the 2008 session to
produce the $70 million needed for LRT construction. Each one-year delay
will add $45 million to the price tag, because of inflation, he said. He
took note of the fact that the University of Minnesota prefers a new
northern route, instead of a surface route through the middle of campus.
He said this would be a very major change in the alignment very late in
the process. As a result, a compelling case must be made to justify such a
change. He hopes to work something out with the University.
15. Use of pricing strategies for freeways--Bell
said he supports tolls and other ways of using pricing to encourage more
efficient use of freeways in the Twin Cities area.
16. Elect the Metropolitan Council?--The
Metropolitan Council has taxing power, regulatory power, and policy power,
Bell noted. It has a budget of $700 million a year, and, therefore, is
the third or fourth largest unit of government in the state. Its bonds
outstanding for all purposes are about $1 billion, and the Council has a
AAA credit rating. He can understand why some people advocate that the
Council should be elected. Bell opposes election. The Council would
become a super-government, competing with the Legislature. Moreover, he
said, election would likely make the Council more parochial. Elected
members each would insist, more than members do now, that their respective
districts receive specific projects. He predicts that the Council would
end up with earmarking by members, a phenomenon that now is common with
the Legislature and with Congress.
he also would oppose changing the Council into a council of governments,
with its representatives being made up of county and municipal elected
behalf of the Civic Caucus, Verne thanked Bell for his cordial, detailed,
and comprehensive discussion today.