Steve Elkins, chair, Transportation Committee, Metropolitan Council
The Civic Caucus
8301 Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437 June 15, 2012
Notes of the Discussion
Verne Johnson (chair), Dave Broden, Pat Davies, Rick Dornfeld, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter
Steve Elkins discusses the Metropolitan Council's
2030 Transportation Plan
and the fiscal challenges it faces in the current political and economic
landscape. He describes the changing relationship between the Council,
local government units, and the State of Minnesota in financing mass
transit and outlines the challenges of planning a cost effective transit
system to meet the future needs of Twin Cities metropolitan area
Introduction of Speaker
was appointed to the Metropolitan Council in March 2011. He represents
District 5, which includes the Hennepin County cities of Bloomington,
Edina, and Richfield, and the unorganized territory of Fort Snelling.
Prior to his appointment to the Metropolitan Council, Elkins served on the
Bloomington City Council for nine years, and the Bloomington Housing &
Redevelopment Authority for five years. He has been active on committees
with Metro Cities, the League of Minnesota Cities and the National League
of Cities (NLC). Elkins was chair of the NLC Transportation Committee in
Elkins is a senior enterprise data architect
with Optum Health. He is a member of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce
and represented the City of Bloomington on the board of directors from
2004-2011. Elkins holds a bachelor's degree in economics from the
University of California, Berkeley.
In his opening remarks, Elkin argued, "People
don't ride conveyances for the fun of it. They ride them because they want
to get themselves or their goods from point A to point B." He argues that
one of most crucial things to consider when considering both
transportation and land use planning is that employers want access to
greatest pool of employees within a reasonable commute and, at the same
time, workers want access to the greatest pool of attractive jobs within a
reasonable commute. These basic desires coupled with employers' needs for
other business-related infrastructure and workers' desires for both
low-cost transportation and residential amenities complicate the process
of optimizing metropolitan transportation systems.
Operating deficits of light rail and other mass transit.
"To what degree will the light rail transit (LRT)
system make a difference in the operating deficits of Metro Transit"?
Elkins indicated that funding for buses will be
held constant in the areas of the Twin Cities with light rail transit,
which means the additional funding for LRT will mark an overall increase
in funding for transit. The operating budget for LRT comes partially from
the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), while the Council assumes
that the state will provide an additional 50% of the funds needed to cover
the operating deficit. According to Elkins, one of the problems with this
funding model is that the state has been inconsistent with its
contributions in recent years, forcing CTIB to fill the gap.
Of the varying forms of mass transit in the Twin
Cities, LRT has a relatively high fare-recovery rate, which is the
percentage of operating expenses that are met by the fares paid by
passengers. This higher recovery rate would suggest that LRT might help to
reduce the operating deficits associated with expanded transit coverage.
Subsidy per passenger
Productivity (pass. per hr.)
Urban local bus
Suburban local bus
*Required by federal Americans with
"The reason that light rail does so well is that
there are a lot more passengers per vehicle," said Elkins. "Even express
bus service carries only about 35 passengers per operating hour. Light
rail averages 183 passengers per operating hour. Basically, with light
rail you have a lot more passengers per driver which means fares offset a
higher proportion of operating costs."
Overall, Metro Transit recovers about 30% of its
operating expenses from fares, which Elkins says, puts the system in the
top two or three nationally in fare recovery.
Motor vehicle sales tax as a revenue source.
If MVST revenue fails to meet expectations, what
options for changes in fares or operations would the Metro Council
Part of the problem at the state level is that
the motor vehicle sales tax (MVST), which is supposed to help fund bus
services, has never yielded revenues as high as originally forecast. This
has put additional pressure on the general fund to help pay for transit.
However, given the difficult state budget situation, "the state has not
been a reliable partner lately," Elkins said. "We would very much like to
move away from using general fund allocations in the future."
Elkins is hopeful that alternatives to using
state general funds to fill in the gap left by the MVST shortfall could be
proposed by Governor Dayton's Transportation Finance Taskforce. Elkins
believes Metropolitan Council Chair Sue Haigh's appointment to that
taskforce will provide the Council with a strong voice throughout that
In response to arguments that roads are financed
entirely by users through the gas tax, Elkins cited a University of
Minnesota - Center for Transportation Studies report (
"The state gas tax was only providing 28% of the
cost," Elkins said. "The gas pump recovery rate actually is lower than the
fare box recovery rate for transit."
Elkins noted that these funding gaps illustrate
that transportation is rarely financially self-sufficient and typically
requires public subsidy to operate effectively.
Land value capture as a funding source.
To reduce state and metro investment, should
increases in land values attributable to the investment in LRT be tapped
to help pay for capital expenses?
Elkins noted that there is a lot of interest in
using "value capture" mechanisms to fund transit projects by taxing the
increases in private land values generated by public investments in those
"One of the projects we are all envious of is
the street car system in downtown Portland," Elkins said. "About half of
it was funded by assessments on the developers who redeveloped the Pearl
District along the line and who still managed to do very well on their
A challenge to this sort of technique is
determining what kind of mechanism to use, whom to assess and for how
long. Another issue raised by Elkins is that using land value capture
mechanisms for transit projects would draw concerns from city and county
governments, which also use tax increment financing for development
Marginal transportation costs and peak-hour pricing.
Elkins would like to see smarter peak fares to
spread out transit riders during rush hour so that all buses have more
even ridership during these high-use time blocks. Higher fares during the
peak of rush hour would encourage some commuters to go at off-peak times
allowing Metro Transit more efficiently use existing bus capacity
throughout morning and evening rush hours.
"Most trips have 20-30 people on each 44-person
bus, while the peak bus ridership might average 50-60 people," Elkins
said. "If we charged more during that peak time, we could spread the
passengers more evenly and avoid having to use the larger, more costly
Elkins is less supportive of using higher peak
fares rates during sporting events because those events are a good way to
expose new people to transit. Many people try mass transit for the first
time during sport events to avoid the high cost of parking. Elkins is
concerned that a higher fare might reduce the incentive for the public to
try using mass transit.
Transportation issues surrounding suburban land use.
According to Elkins, the two biggest challenges
to increasing the density of development, which would improve the utility
of mass transit, are parking and storm water management.
Most commercial developments in the suburbs have
a floor area ratio (FAR) (the ratio of building square footage to land
parcel square footage) of 0.3. For transit to become viable, a FAR of
about 1.0 is required. To get those sorts of FAR values, structured,
multi-level parking has to be built, as opposed to large surface lots.
"However, in most suburban areas, land values
are such that it is still cheaper to build parking out, using surface
lots, rather than up, with multi-level garages," Elkins said. "You really
need to have land values of $50 per square foot before developers will
build structured parking without subsidies, the only exception being
"Class A" office buildings where structured parking supports higher office
Since most storm water must be dealt with on
site, developers must consider the placement of storm water ponds that
take away from developable land on the site.
Addressing the challenges of suburb-to-suburb transit.
Currently, there are many difficult challenges
to providing adequate mass transit between the suburbs. Arterial buses are
clearly unable to cover all the widespread destinations of potential mass
transit users-especially in a manner as convenient as automobile
Elkins believes that eventually a system that
pairs LRT and bus rapid transit (BRT) with Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)
will be viewed as an ideal solution. In this system, buses or trains will
bring people to strategically located transit hubs, where people will
transfer to personal transit pods that will take them the last mile to
their final destinations.
Arterial bus rapid transit could possibly serve
as a hybrid solution to the gaps in the Twin Cities mass transit system.
Arterial BRT service is defined as high frequency, limited-stop service on
urban arterial streets. Arterial BRT provides improved speed, frequency,
and reliability without the higher capital costs, construction impacts,
and right-of-way requirements of an LRT or dedicated bus corridor. It
provides service at least every 10 minutes during peak periods with lower
frequencies during mid-day, evenings, and weekends. These systems could be
used to bridge the gap between local buses and LRT.
C. Conclusion "There is no single silver bullet
that will resolve all metro transportation challenges," Elkins said. "We
have to look at each transit corridor, see what the goal there is and
determine the most cost effective solution."
Elkins supports determining cost effective
remedies to congestion in each corridor of the Twin Cities. However, he
cautioned that preference for one transportation mode over another should
have no part in the analysis. Citing the example of a 6.5-mile strip of
494 between Highway 100 and Highway 77, Elkins explained that it would
cost $650 million to add one additional lane of traffic. At a cost of $100
million a mile, it would have the same cost as building light rail, but
carry far fewer passengers. This illustrates why, Elkins suggests, it
makes sense to support the cost-effective solution that maximizes
throughput over preference for any particular transportation mode.
The chair thanked Elkins for an informative discussion.
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Verne C. Johnson, chair; David Broden,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Marina Lyon,
Joe Mansky, John Mooty, Jim Olson,
and Wayne Popham