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of Meeting with Robert McFarlin
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Verne Johnson, Chair; Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Dan Loritz,
McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Bill Frenzel (by phone), Clarence
Shallbetter (by phone)
Context of the meeting—The
Civic Caucus released its report on transportation last month. To comment
on the findings and recommendations, core members invited Bob McFarlin,
former acting Commissioner of Transportation and current member of the
Metropolitan Council. “Can’t have a better person to give feedback,” it
Introduction of speaker—Bob
McFarlin has served on the Metropolitan Council since January of 2009. He
is vice president of corporate, community and public affairs at the public
relations firm of Weber Shandwick in
Bloomington. He has 27 years of experience in government and public
appointed acting transportation commissioner by Governor Tim Pawlenty in
February 2008 after serving five years as assistant to the commissioner
for transportation policy and public affairs. Bob also served as Mn/DOT’s
director of public affairs and as chief of staff for nearly a decade
during the 1990’s.
Comments and discussion—During
the discussion, the following points were raised:
1. State is at a crossroads on transportation--Bob
opened by saying he agreed with much of the report.
is at a historic crossroads, he said, in the context of its past
experiences. There was great sense of purpose to our transportation
operation—there was vision—during the planning, construction, and
expansion of the interstate highway system. Then we hit a lull.
There has been emerging now debate about transit—buses,
rail—and now a new wave is approaching transportation with the success of
the Hiawatha line. When Hiawatha was being developed some communities were
asking for local moratoriums or restrictions on transit development to
protect their town from the line coming through. Now people are lining up
for new LRT and commuter rail projects. The growing popularity for rail
signals, for him, a new era and focus for future transportation planning
Leadership and decision-making in transportation planning, policy--The
Civic Caucus report was a ‘structure’ report, said the chair. He asked:
Who would you say is chiefly in charge, who makes decisions, about
transportation planning in the state?
Minnesota Legislature is foremost, Bob replied, in cooperation with the
governor. The governor, with and through Mn/DOT, proposes his
transportation budget and priorities and the Legislature deliberates. Mn/DOT
and the Met Council plan—and are part of the governor’s administration.
Bob recognized that over the years the office of governor may not have
been leading in the manner called for in the Caucus report.
are also significant influencers in state transportation policy. They
“are, in the best sense of the word, ‘proposers and agitators’ for the
development of rail and highway projects. They move self-interested
projects along and are often willing to invest county resources into
studies, planning and advocacy.” Anoka and Hennepin Counties are perhaps
best known for their advocacy of the Northstar Commuter Rail line and the
Hiawatha LRT line respectively.
the Metropolitan Council plans for the long-term, unfortunately they are
not always listened to.
3. Role of the federal government--
Is the Federal government, with earmarks and now stimulus money, usurping
the state and its planning agencies? In ways, Bob replied, but more for
rail than for roads. LRT is being guided by Federal funds, and high-speed
rail has an even stronger Federal weight.
structural problem exists in that earmarks come in from the Federal
government after state plans are made. This confounds the process of
4. Coordination could be strengthened--We
are not devoid of plans, he continued, but there is some coordination that
can be strengthened. The real disconnect in the planning process right now
is between the planning bodies and the Legislature. The elected body is
representative of interests—of the Legislators, local governments and of
constituents. The planners approach from a different perspective.
and the Met Council are planning and implementing agencies. For example,
in the draft Statewide Transportation Plan released by Mn/DOT earlier this
year, through 2030 Mn/DOT has identified $65 billion in needs on the state
highway system, with only $15 billion in projected available funds. The
agency provides this objective information to the Legislature and the
public, and lays out priorities for spending the available funds. Mn/DOT’s
investment priorities, which are well known to the Legislature, are
safety, system preservation and maintenance, and low cost/high benefit
improvements. The Legislature is then aware of Mn/DOT’s investment plans
and the identified needs for which there is no funding. The Legislature
and the governor’s office must then work together on how to fund the unmet
needs. Bob pointed out, for example, that within Mn/DOT’s plan, $38
billion in projected unmet needs can be classified as “Twin Cities
mobility,” or congestion mitigation needs.
asks, do we need a single, comprehensive state planning agency?
sure if it would be decidedly better, Bob replied, as the plans still go
to the Legislature.
any state with a single planning group? Not that Bob knows of. The
standard practice is for planning agencies to report to the legislature.
member asked whether Hiawatha has reduced congestion? Congestion is one
piece, Bob said, but we need to be careful to think about and to assess
rail in its proper context, which is different from roads. Light rail will
never substantially relieve congestion, nor should it be expected to. He
has argued this, and pointed it out, since the planning days of the
Hiawatha line. Rail deserves its own set of evaluation criteria. Such as:
rail project: (a) Move people? (b) Contribute to economic development? (c)
Reduce use of fossil fuels? (d) Help people who are transit-dependent?
measure transit against roads,” Bob said, “you will miss much of its
Caucus member asked whether one important criterion for assessing LRT has
disappeared: Does it aid in getting people from home to their jobs? McFarlin
replied that LRT does/will run into, and connect, centers of economic
activity including the University of Minnesota.
Problem of financing rail operating deficits --The
Caucus report is neither pro- nor against rail as a public transit
strategy. Instead it calls for sober, objective analysis of the costs and
benefits of rail as part of a comprehensive plan. This includes financing,
and Caucus members have concerns about a significant disconnect between
operating cost and revenues. Rail cannot pay for itself, and will need to
be subsidized. This reality has not found its way into the media coverage,
or public debate.
thus posed this question: How is the Met Council planning to pay for the
operating deficit of new LRT lines? Only a fraction is covered out of the
fare box. Presently transit needs $64 million to fund its operating
deficit; this is coming from the roads-side of transportation: sales tax
on vehicles, property tax.
completely that this is a serious problem,” Bob said. At all levels right
now focus is on the initial capital costs of constructing rail lines,
purchasing the cars, building facilities. Operations and maintenance are
secondary. Often the Legislature, the administration and rail project
proponents all fail to address the how to pay for the operating cost of
transit projects once they are complete and ready for service. He
when the bonding bill was set to include the Hiawatha line, Governor
Carlson said he would not release the funds until the Legislature
accounted for the operating needs. When he left office the situation was
not resolved; Ventura did not follow through.
as funding, right now, there is a plan that has been cobbled together to
get the Met Council through the next biennium. No structural solution.
is out front on the operating costs, a core member argued. Why isn’t the
have been, Bob was quick to respond—they talk about it internally, in the
offices and at public meetings. When talking to the Legislature about the
North Star project, they point it out. But it hasn’t been picked up.
Governor supported North Star, he addressed operating costs by saying that
localities would split operating costs with the state. He has not said how
the state would come up with its half, other than to cover the costs
within the Met Council’s normal operating appropriations. This may prove
important, because with the Hiawatha line the locals were, after some
struggle, relieved from their financial responsibility, which was shifted
to the new ¼ cent metro sales tax.
question: If the Civic Caucus proposal for a unified transportation budget
were adopted, as outlined in the report, in your opinion would this
maintenance and operations issue be handled?
Bob replied, “I think it would. To that question, such a budgeting process
would force recognition of and a solution to funding needs for operating
Leadership process is in place--The
basic process for leadership is already in place, he followed. The
Governor proposes a transportation plan, helped by MNDOT and the Met
Council; it gets modified after the February budget forecast; then it
heads into legislative committees and goes from there. What could improve
is better recognition, understanding and closer adherence – by both the
Legislature and the executive branch – to the extensive highway and
transit plans developed by Mn/DOT and the Met Council.
high speed inter-city rail jeopardize LRT?--A
member wondered if there is room for both LRT and national high-speed rail
in the coming years? As talk picks up about a high speed line to Chicago,
does that jeopardize plans for LRT? The thinking doesn’t seem to include
this right now, Bob said. The Met Council and Mn/DOT are continuing to
prioritize future potential LRT, commuter rail and bus rapid transit
projects. High-speed rail, which is more focused on inter-state and
inter-city service, will more than likely complement these more localized
modes, rather than compete.
Issues on location of LRT corridors--The
Carlson administration explored building rail down the I-35 corridor,
south of downtown
Minneapolis. This was opposed by Minneapolis officials, Bob said, for
reasons of land use, land acquisition, accessibility for riders, simple
geography. It is not common to see rail built along an interstate
corridor, if at all, though a member said he knew of one location.
Geography and connections to economic generators are usually chief factors
for laying line.
that said, there are other innovative ways to address highway congestion:
creative use of shoulder lanes for carpool or paid express, bus rapid
transit, such as the ambitious BRT (bus rapid transit) project now under
construction on I-35 south of downtown Minneapolis to Lakeville.
bus service need improvement?--We
have got a good bus system, good for getting people to jobs, but it is
limited because it is based off a wheel and spoke format, McFarlin said.
It services the central cities first. There is demand for bus service
elsewhere, but it is tough to break out of the present format. A challenge
for bus lines outside of downtown is in securing and maintaining strong
ridership. There is free and convenient parking at job locations outside
of the downtowns, which means workers aren't necessarily encouraged to use
services need to be expanded to the aging. Door to door service should be
expanded for the frail elderly reliant on public transit. But these are
expensive services that require new funding models and ideas.
state is at a turning point, he said. There is strong demand from many
areas of public life, and from public agencies, for spending on rail
transit. This sort of movement means something, Bob said—it represents
you, to Bob, for his time today and for his good thoughts on the report.