A shift ahead for highways in the Twin Cities


Transportation investment in the Twin Cities will shift gears in smart ways if the Met Council and Minnesota’s Department of Transportation stick with draft plans they have begun to unveil at a series of outreach sessions.

The shift: Moving away from hugely expensive expansion projects — with their limited and localized impacts — and adopting instead new, cost-effective approaches to improve mobility and manage congestion… not end it.

The goal: “Wring every bit of capacity possible out of our metropolitan highway system.”

The reason: “The era of expanding highways to address additional capacity needs is over.”

The outlines for the Metropolitan Highway System Investment Study call for approaches that are realistic, innovative, and focus available funds on opportunities that offer the greatest benefits for the Twin Cities highway system as a whole.

Sounds right on target, but this new emphasis breaks tradition with highway investment plans that have identified big-ticket construction projects as the main way to improve travel and reduce congestion.

The change in tune is impressive, important and pragmatic. An earlier study estimated that building our way out of Twin Cities’ congestion by 2030 would cost $40 billion. That’s more than two and a half times the total funding that MnDOT says will be available for statewide highway investments from 2009 to 2028.

To raise $40 billion, Minnesota would need to increase the gas tax by $2 a gallon.

So smart highway spending in the metro area will focus on preserving the roadways we have already; repairing and replacing our bridges; engaging in low-cost, strategic construction projects that will best expand the system’s capacity; and using transit and technology to increase the number of people the roadways can move.

The highway plan will bank on benefits from traffic management techniques, including metered entrances to Twin Cities freeways; better information about traffic tie-ups so drivers can shift to alternate routes; and priced MnPASS freeway lanes than can serve as congestion relief valves and fast transit routes.

Transit is called out as an important component of the plan, and so are land use changes that can reduce the need for roadway travel and foster transit use.

The planners have even shifted their language to reflect an emphasis on moving people and not on moving cars. The new phrase of choice is telling — “people throughput” instead of “vehicle throughput.”

While the new investment study recognizes many of the major challenges and constraints for the Twin Cities highway system, it does not wipe them away, of course. Transit remains underfunded, as do fix-it-first investments in our existing system.

But the metro highway investment study reflects many of the smart themes and priorities found in MnDOT’s statewide transportation policy plan, thankfully.

Once the draft Metropolitan Highway System Investment Study is amended and adopted, it will update the Metropolitan Council’s transportation policy plan and in this way set the stage for how that regional government and MnDOT go about investing in the Twin Cities area transportation infrastructure.

It’s progress.