An interview with Jennifer Munt

Hilary Reeves, TLC’s communications director, recently sat down with Jennifer Munt to talk about her first several months on the Metropolitan Council. Munt represents District 3, which includes 16 suburbs in Hennepin County. She is also the president of the board of Transit for Livable Communities.

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Jennifer Munt, Metropolitan Council Member for District 3

For me, there are two values that guide my work on the Met Council: equity and inclusion. I believe that we can do a better job of providing the tools to cities so that they can design communities where everyone can prosper, whether you’re old or young, whether you have a car or not.

TLC If a person waiting for the bus or arriving at a park and ride asked you why the Met Council matters, what would you say?

I would tell them that we’re all about livability, we’re about affordable housing, clean water, beautiful parks, and we make sure the buses and trains run on time.

TLC As a member of the Met Council, what does it mean to bring a regional vision to your District and your District’s views to the Council? What’s at stake?

I believe I was appointed to be a regional thinker. I don’t think we move the region forward if we are just about bringing home projects to our districts. Everything we do is so interconnected: community development, environmental services and transportation. And similarly, what happens in one portion of the region affects what happens in another.

TLC How should the Met Council balance, rail, bus, and bus rapid transit investments for the best outcomes for the region?

We need to pair the right mode with the needs of a given corridor. I think that our transportation policy plan is well balanced in that respect. We know we need to double our transit system by the year 2030. The problem is that we don’t have the funding necessary to make all of those things happen. My frustration is that we can get the capital for a project but it’s a struggle to get the operating dollars to keep what we build alive.

TLC Is there a vision for what the regional bus system could be if funding were secure?

I think there’s a clear vision of what it would be. When we restructure a segment of the bus system, we go out and we talk to people. We find out: where do they want to go? That changes over time. There are new developments, there are new trends, new places where people want to go, new places where people work. So, we tailor our system to those changing needs. We’re finding now, with $4 per gallon gas, there are more and more people who want to choose transit and we’re finding that younger people want to be less auto-dependent. They want choices. They want to take their bikes. They want to take the bus. And right now those choices aren’t plentiful for them.

We’re finding now, with $4 per gallon gas, there are more and more people who want to choose transit and we’re finding that younger people want to be less auto- dependent. They want choices. They want to take their bikes. They want to take the bus. And right now those choices aren’t plentiful for them.

We also have an aging population, with far greater needs for transit. One of the most eye-opening experiences for me recently was when I had the opportunity to put on an age suit. This age suit made my body feel like I was 73. It made climbing stairs a challenge. It made running across an intersection a challenge. I found new value in those count-down timers that told me whether I had enough time to get across or not. It totally changed the way I see things. Planners of our transit system need to understand what young people need, what our aging population needs and we need to make a greater investment in transit in order to meet those needs.

TLC What about people who are stranded in the housing they have, unable to reach work or essential shopping without a car?

For me, there are two values that guide my work on the Met Council: equity and inclusion. I believe that we can do a better job of providing the tools to cities so that they can design communities where everyone can prosper, whether you’re old or young, whether you have a car or not. I’ll give you an example.

Many young families today are struggling to get into their first home. A family that can get by with one car instead of two has $7,000 more in their pocket and often this is the amount of money they need to get into their first home. So, a community that’s designed in a way that you have the bus connections, so that one spouse can connect to a job by transit, allows that family to have a home. And then they are on the path to prosperity. For me it’s not about social engineering, it’s about providing choices. And it’s about providing the kind of choices that people tell me they crave. My hope is that we can take the work of the Met Council away from partisanship. Livability and healthy communities shouldn’t be about democrats or republicans, liberals or conservatives. It should be about choices for everyone.

TLC Previous Met Councils have viewed bicycle and pedestrian issues as local rather than regional. What do you think?

It’s my hope that this Council will treat bike and pedestrian infrastructure as a regional system. I will advocate for that. What we’ve learned at Met Council is that people aren’t just pedestrians or just bicyclists or just transit riders. Many people combine their commute, so having a good pedestrian realm helps increase transit ridership. Creating an environment where you can bicycle to your transit connection, makes everything stronger. I think we have to look at it as part of a system that’s woven into everything else that we do.

TLC: What are the dynamics on the Met Council between the way a more suburban member views these issues versus someone closer into the core? Is there a suburban/urban tension?

I think my peers on the council have a shared vision of what we can accomplish over the next four years. That vision involves keeping the region competitive so people choose to live, work and play here. To do that, we need to focus our energy on two things: figuring out how to fund transportation and creating a seamless connection between land use and transit.

Realtors often say, location, location, location. Developers say station, station, station. And there’s a huge amount of interest along the Southwest corridor and other yet-to-be built transit corridors, where land is available.

Realtors often say, location, location, location. Developers say station, station, station. And there’s a huge amount of interest along the Southwest corridor and other yet-to-be built transit corridors, where land is available. Communities are learning how to plan the kind of development that their neighbors want. When a developer comes along and says, “I’m interested in building what your city desires,” then the Met Council has a role in helping that developer plug into the transit infrastructure. We are not just about laying tracks down but we’re also about allowing the developers to plug in and to create that seamless interface between their development and our trains. The beauty of all that is that you can create a fast-track process where the community gets what they want, the developer can build quickly, and it can all be done in tandem with construction of a light rail line. At the end of the day, we’re creating jobs, and housing, and choices for communities that didn’t exist before. That’s what keeps our region competitive. And that benefits everyone, whether you’re in Minneapolis or Minnetonka.

TLC Where is the greatest sense of urgency on the Met Council, given the window that you have?

It’s difficult right now because we’re fighting for our very survival. There are people each legislative session who try to eliminate the Met Council.  Some say there’s no value in what we do; I say they don’t know what we do.

We were created in 1967 to address water pollution, a deteriorating bus system, rapid growth and disparities. It’s our job to plan for efficient development and coordinate services that any one city or county could not effectively provide for themselves. Today, we operate a transit system that provided 90 million rides last year. When people flush their toilets, we treat their wastewater – imagine 260 million gallons each day! We protect our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and we plan parks that are the crown jewels of our region. We help low-income seniors, families and persons with disabilities find decent and affordable housing. And we provide the tools and research to help cities shape their future. That’s important work!

We need to make sure people know who we are, what we do and how that affects their lives. And then I think our sense of urgency is to make sure that the cities within the region view us as a resource that can help them.

TLC How does the new Met Council plan to make integration of land use and transit a reality?

We had the opportunity to meet with Dallas Area Rapid Transit. They’ve been able to achieve a phenomenal amount of development. It’s been integrated seamlessly with their transit. I asked them, what was your secret to success? They hired a staff person whose job it was to help developers plug in.

I think of this as a three-legged stool. You have the city that handles all the zoning and decides what they want to happen around the station area and they involve their residents in shaping that vision. And then a developer comes along and says, “Yes, I’m really interested in building what you envision.” Then it becomes our job as the third leg of the stool to help the city and the developer plug into our light rail. And that’s done as a before-thought not an after-thought. That means that the Met Council has a different role than just laying down tracks and operating a transit system. It means we have a responsibility for helping to maximize our investment in the infrastructure by helping cities and developers plug in, in a way that creates jobs and improves livability in their community. And at the same time, that produces more riders for our transit system.

Transit stations are great places for mixed use. If you’re going to a transit stop, you want to have a place where you can bring the baby for child care, where you can drop your dry cleaning and pick it up after work. Transit is changing the way we live. For example, the old model was to shop on the weekend and fill the minivan with groceries. The new model with transit is to stop at the farmer’s market or grocery and pick up only what you need, fresh for that night’s meal. In very subtle ways, more transit changes how we live.

TLC Does Bus-Rapid-Transit play into this? Does Met Council have a role with the Cedar Avenue BRT, for example?

We do.  Met Council and Dakota County are working together to fund and construct the $112 million line, which is set to open in fall 2012.  The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority will operate the 16-mile busway between Mall of America and Lakeville.  With construction on the home stretch, we’re stretching to find the funding to order the buses in time for the opening.

TLC How does TLC best work with the Met Council to increase transportation options for Minnesotans?

The Met Council views TLC as a powerful ally. I believe that the public will drives the political will to have more and better transit choices. I say, raise your voices loud and strong and make sure Met Council members know what you want and need.

This fall my partner’s son moved to the Twin Cities from New York. The first thing that he said was, “The women are beautiful here and I can bicycle everywhere I need to go. I love this community.” For a twenty-one year old, it’s about girls and bicycling. He found both here in the Twin Cities. I credit TLC for making it a place where Ben doesn’t need a car.

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Jennifer Munt at the 2010 launch of Nice Ride Minnesota bike-sharing

It’s my hope that this Council will treat bike and pedestrian infrastructure as a regional system. I will advocate for that.

 

 

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