Thoughts on the 2040 Transportation Policy Plan

I’d been meaning to spend more time digging into the 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, but I’ve been kind of busy with another project, and the due date for comments (today at 5pm) has snuck up on me. There are a couple areas in which I’m concerned but I think I’ll just send in the generic TLC supportive comment because ultimately my concerns are more quibbles than anything. Overall I think the plan makes some significant advances over the 2030 plan, particularly in its consideration of land use and form when evaluating transportation investments. But at the same time the plan is deeply troubling to me, primarily because in the time horizon of the plan I will have reached the end of my middle age (knock on wood) and this plan contemplates a transit system that still cannot be used for daily needs on a citywide scale.

1. Transit Market Areas

This plan makes significant improvements to the important policy known as Transit Market Areas. These areas are actually used to decide where and what kind of transit service is implemented. Briefly, the areas are numbered 1-5 (or I-V in the new plan) and as the area increases numerically the level of service warranted decreases, with the most important break in my opinion coming between areas 2 and 3, the former of which supports usable regular route service and the latter of which does not. The formula used to determine these areas has been updated to include intersection density, a proxy for (and characteristic of) transit-supportive urban design, but at the same time employment density has been demoted in the weighting of the different components of the formula. The result is a map that has changed from the 2030 plan in unsettling ways.

First, the 2030 map:

2030TPPTransitMarketAreasAnd now the 2040 map:

2040TPPTransitMarketAreasIt disturbs me that Area 3 expands in the new map while Area 2 contracts significantly. This represents a decline in the area where it is practical to use transit, since it is extremely difficult to use peak period express service for anything other than a daily commute. This transit-slashing result is due to the use of current figures for population and employment rather than projections. Bloomington is a great example of this, as the Met Council’s 2040 population forecasts predict a 37% increase in the city’s population, an absolute increase of over 30,000 people, and the city’s land use policy directs half of that into the area in the eastern tip that surrounds the Mall of America. Yet the Area 2 actually shrinks out of this growth ghetto in the updated map!

There is a bit of temporal incongruity in the plan’s use of the Transit Market Area map, as despite the fact that this plan is covering the next 26 years, this particular portion is actually supposed to reflect current conditions, be used immediately, and revised as conditions change (I’m not sure how often that actually happens). However, as I noted above the important achievement of this plan is the degree to which it articulates land use and transportation policies. As such, I don’t think it should be unreasonable to recognize the influence that transportation facilities have on land use. So while it would be inadvisable to base current transportation policies solely on future land use, I think it would be wise to include the population (and employment) forecasts in some degree while developing the Transit Market Area policies. After all, what incentive is there to build transit-oriented development in a place with no transit?

One more brief quibble that is illustrated by the new exclusion of the Mall of America’s neighborhood from Transit Market Area 2 is the underweighting of employment density. Again, I think it’s great that intersection density is a factor in determining these areas, but does it really deserve to be weighted higher than employment density? What is more important in the decision to take transit, the relative comfort of taking it or the existence of something to take it to? While both are important, if the latter were all that mattered, would anyone ever take transit in this nation of curb cuts and skinny or nonexistent sidewalks?

For easy reference, here is the relative weighing of the different components of the formula that determines the Transit Market Areas (which they call the Transit Market Index or TMI, which apparently is also Too Much Information for the typical reader of the plan, so they buried it in Appendix G):

𝑇𝑀𝐼=0.64βˆ—(π‘ƒπ‘œπ‘π‘’π‘™π‘Žπ‘‘π‘–π‘œπ‘› 𝐷𝑒𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑑𝑦) +

0.23βˆ—(πΌπ‘›π‘‘π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘ π‘’π‘π‘‘π‘–π‘œπ‘› 𝐷𝑒𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑑𝑦) +

0.20βˆ—(πΈπ‘šπ‘π‘™π‘œπ‘¦π‘šπ‘’π‘›π‘‘ 𝐷𝑒𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑑𝑦) +

0.11βˆ—(π΄π‘’π‘‘π‘œπ‘šπ‘œπ‘π‘–π‘™π‘’ π΄π‘£π‘Žπ‘–π‘™π‘Žπ‘π‘–π‘™π‘–π‘‘π‘¦)

2. “Increased” Revenue

I’m moving away from the Twin Cities in which I was born and raised because of the low quality of the transit system. One of the reasons I’ve stayed as long as I have is that my family is here, but it is frustrating or impossible to visit them without a car, and I’ve grown to realize this is not going to change. The 2040 Transportation Policy Plan confirms this. It plans for broad swathes of the metro area to remain distant from transitways, condemning anyone without a car to the limbo of mile after mile on a lumbering, rambling local or interminable waits and planning your life around extremely infrequent service, or simply not being able to access much of the city.

Of course I’m not saying transportation for the region should be planned around my family, but I do find it strange that this plan has ended up with such little coverage. Interestingly, there is some discussion on pages 246-247 of the factors for determining transitway investment, and regional balance, a form of coverage goal, is included. Unfortunately this seems to mean that at least one transitway should touch each county, which has the bizarre effect of allowing 19th century politics and geography to determine 21st century transportation investments. I would think that if this coverage goal could be included as a factor, there could be something about considering regional employment and retail centers.

Now may be the time to mention that the Current Revenue Scenario vision for transitways is exceedingly bleak:

2040TPPCurrentRevenueTransitwaysThere is a caveat in the plan that it does not include arterial transitways that may be added if the winds of the next 10 years are favorable, but that says nothing about how this vision leaves the vast majority of the metro area, and a significant number of employment centers, completely unserved by transitways and therefore unusable for transit outside of downtown commuting. In what may be an unprecedented move in American planning, it also represents a retrenchment of the transit vision from the 2030 plan:

Of course, the plan also considers an Increased Revenue Scenario, the transitway vision of which is pretty similar to what, in May 2013, the Met Council was planning to have accomplished by 2030:

2040TPPIncreasedRevenueTransitwaysThis vision, while pushing transitways deep into the exurbs, leaves the region’s third largest job center and probably largest retail concentration, Southdale, unserved by rapid transit. Just a couple of years ago, we were considering building light rail to rapidly growing Maple Grove, but this plan doesn’t even consider it worthy of arterial BRT. According to this plan, it will take more than 26 years to figure out how to serve the hundred thousand jobs loosely clustered in industrial districts in Plymouth, Eagan, North St Paul, and Spring Lake Park with some kind of higher-speed transit.

The reasons behind the underwhelming advance in transitway planning deserve deeper reading of the plan that I was able to give. It’s possible that the vision was pared to fit the revenue available under the assumptions of their Increased Revenue Scenario, but I’m not entirely sure what those assumptions are and probably deserve the blame for not being able to interpret the figures given in the plan. If I’m reading it right, the sole difference between the Current and the Increased Revenue Scenarios is that the latter includes a half-cent sales tax increase. I’m unclear about why this number was chosen, since peer cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City have higher transit sales taxes (I think). But I have deeper questions about the assumptions in the Current Revenue Scenario, in which categories such as State Bonds and Property Taxes see declines over the life of the plan despite increases or plateaus in recent history. What am I missing that would account for a 30% drop in property tax revenue. In a political world where we’ve seen the traditionally biennial bonding bill become a yearly feast, why would state bonding support for transit drop? But again, I haven’t had time to give the financial underpinnings of the plan the scrutiny they deserve.

Ultimately this plan represents a major advancement in transportation policy for the region, and as such it deserves support. If you’re interested and have time today, check out David’s and Brendon’s critiques at streets.mn, and if you still feel compelled, submit TLC’s form letter. If you have had more time than I have to spend with this plan, I welcome your corrections, insights, or general comments.

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