Do Not Enter: Are transportation policies going the wrong way?

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by Staff, MN Center for Environmental Advocacy • 8/05/08 • A new transportation report suggests that the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council are not adequately measuring the key indicators that would drive Minnesota to address the challenges of rising gas prices, an aging population and climate change.

The report, Transportation Performance in the Twin Cities Region, is the focus of a panel discussion today at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, featuring MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell and University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies Director Robert Johns.

Transit for Livable Communities, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership wrote the 32-page report. The report states the two agencies need to spend more time measuring key emerging trends, developing methods to better meld transportation and land use policies and providing greater accountability for achieving goals.

“What we are trying to do with this report is look at all aspects of transportation,” said Jim Erkel, Land Use and Transportation Program Director for Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “People only want to go between point A and point B because of what A and B are, and adding more lanes and funneling more cars on the road can destroy what A and B are.”

A prime example of measuring the wrong things, or measuring them in isolation, is the heavy emphasis on measuring congestion on the Twin Cities’ freeways. While an annoyance, congestion is a good indicator of a strong economy. St. Louis and Cleveland consistently have less congestion than the Twin Cities, not because of any transportation innovations, but because they have less economic activity. Trying to solve only congestion on the freeways could lead to programs that cripple business development and employment.

In order to keep that robust economy, a metropolitan area must also keep its “sense of place,’’ which attracts both businesses and workers. That is accomplished through thoughtful urban design and many options for getting around including easy walking, biking, and transit. The challenge is measuring how policies contribute to both reducing congestion and maintaining the sense of place.

“Minnesota’s planning agencies must ask whether their choices of transportation projects are truly addressing 21st Century challenges,” said Dave Van Hattum, Policy and Advocacy Program Manager at Transit for Livable Communities. “Right now, Minnesota’s transportation policies are the result of looking in the rear-view mirror rather than toward the future. This needs to change.”

The report makes several recommendations, including:
• Financial transparency of MnDOT and Metropolitan Council
transportation projects;
• Measure efficient land use through vehicle miles traveled per capita;
• Improve transportation choices by tracking more than once a decade;
• Measure energy efficiency through greenhouse gas emissions per capita from the transportation sector;
• Measure health impacts through air quality ratings;
• Measure environmental impacts through impervious surfaces per capita;
• The Legislature should add greenhouse gas reduction and
serving an aging, more diverse population to current goals;
• The Legislature should require a joint MnDOT and Metropolitan
Council biennial regional performance report;
• The two agencies should make all key performance reporting
documents easily available on their websites.

“Our report aims to spur greater clarity and transparency in how the taxpayers’ dollars are being invested in transportation,” said Anne Canby, President of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. “For instance, how much is spent on preserving existing roads and bridges versus adding new highway capacity. The report should also help to create a better link to real outcomes the public cares about, such as how well transit serves the communities within the Twin Cities region.”