From Dave Van Hattum, Policy and Advocacy Program Manager

In recent years, as transit options in Minnesota have expanded, ridership has surged. Since 2005, transit ridership is up 9% in the metro and 38% in greater Minnesota.The growth is certainly the result of expanding transit options – primarily, the Hiawatha LRT and Northstar Commuter Rail in the metro, and a very small increase in bus service in greater Minnesota communities.Yet, even with this growth, three to five times as many people would like to have access to transit. Increased demand likely reflects consumers’ belief that transit provides a convenient and economical alternative to driving.

Nevertheless, transit advocates will have their work cut out for them in 2011. In Minnesota, transit champions won re-election but lost leadership positions on key committees: In the Senate and House Transit subcommittees (Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein) and House Capital Investment Committee (Rep. Alice Hausman). On the federal level, Minnesota and the nation lost the visionary leadership of and Rep. James Oberstar as Chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Early signs point to a vastly different approach to public transit by the new Republican majorities in St. Paul and D.C. The state’s new Senate leadership and Rep Mike Beard, the new House Transportation Committee Chair have already questioned the prudence of investing in the Southwest LRT and other key transitway corridors. A key staffer for Congressman Mica, who takes over for Congressman Oberstar, reports a goal of reducing federal spending on transit from $8b to $5b per year (a 38% decrease), and cutting federal road spending from $35b to $28b per year (a 20% decrease).

On the other hand, Congressman Mica had this to say recently: “I became a mass-transit fan because it’s so much more cost-effective than building a highway. And, seeing the cost of one person in one car. The cost for construction. The cost for the environment. The cost for energy. You can pretty quickly be convinced that there’s got to be a more cost-effective way.”

In Minnesota, if Mark Dayton becomes governor, we hope that he and his appointees to the Met Council will strongly advocate for a transportation vision focused on road repair, building out our regional transit system, and growing along transit corridors. 

Just as important as the views of new political leaders will be the voice of the business community and community members. Multiple Chambers of Commerce support each proposed new regional transitway.  Additionally, the well-respected Itasca Project will release a study early next year on the return on investment from expanded transit. In the months and years ahead, the build-out of new transitways will be heavily influenced by the willingness of the business (and real estate development) community to not only support a transitway in their vicinity but also the state funding to keep these projects on schedule for completion.

Transit is a wise long-term investment. Mn/DOT estimates that every dollar invested in transit generates four dollars in economic returns. Several studies have shown that expanding transit service creates more jobs than road building, and also increases property values, increases energy-efficiency, and–with appropriate transit-supportive land use policies–can provide substantial savings on local roads and sewers.

Community support for transit is clear. In polling completed last spring, three in five Minnesota voters said we should reduce spending on new roads rather than transit. Keeping fares affordable was seen as a pressing concern.

Even with changing political leadership in Minnesota, we believe the Central Corridor LRT project is not at risk and should open in 2014 (link to blog on earmarks). However, other transitways and the bus system (which receive 13% of operating expenses from the general fund) could face costly delays or service cuts. 

Minnesota would be ill advised to cut public transit which gets so many people to work, and provides a lifeline for youth, seniors, and people who cannot drive.  Public transit provides regions with a competitive edge when gas prices go up again and when employers can’t afford to provide expensive employee parking.  We cannot afford to lose our momentum in building affordable, walkable, communities that make this region an attractive place to work, attend college, or retire.

TLC once again calls on our current and growing base of supporters to advocate in their neighborhood, city, and with their state legislators for expanded transit options. Watch for future updates as the state budget process unfolds at the Capitol next year.