Now’s the time to transform transit

April 28, 2023 6:00 am

The Legislature can build a system that would deliver immense economic, traffic and environmental benefits. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

It’s Tuesday morning. You need to drop off the kids at school, pick up a dozen doughnuts for your coworkers, and then get to work. Sure, you could take transit and save money on gas and parking. But with three stops on your journey you might spend as much as 45 minutes just waiting for a bus or a train to come — because in the Twin Cities’ “high frequency” routes only come every 15 minutes.

So you drive.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For our collective prosperity and future stability, transit in the Twin Cities should be our best and first choice. Legislators are currently considering dedicated long-term funding that could make that a reality.

We know Minnesotans want great transit. Recent statewide surveys show that nearly one-third of state residents would take transit if there were better access, and more than half of Minnesotans support a metro-area sales tax to deliver that access.

For less than a penny on the dollar, we could have a core network of Metro Transit lines that come every five to 10 minutes, run on clean electricity, and provide service as fast as car trips. A comprehensive network could put a majority of people in the Twin Cities metro within a 10-minute walk of a high-quality line and support new transit ambassadors who will provide an official presence and support across the system.

We also know our future depends on it. The transportation sector is Minnesota’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and all credible research shows that, to meet climate goals, we must both electrify transportation and reduce car travel. That means expanding and improving transportation options like transit so that physical and economic mobility aren’t tied to car ownership.

After all, car ownership is expensive. With purchase price, gas, insurance and maintenance, transportation stubbornly remains the second highest expense for American households. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that annual household transportation costs exceed $10,000 — higher than education, health care and entertainment spending combined.

Even slight reductions in car travel can deliver enormous financial benefits. Recent data from RMI, a national research institute, show that meeting Minnesota’s recently-adopted goals to reduce driving could deliver a $35 billion return by 2050 just from the cumulative impact of $500 in annual household gas and maintenance savings.

For those who can forgo car ownership altogether and rely on safe and reliable transit, biking, rolling, and walking options, the savings are even greater: Non-car-owning households spend $5,000 less per year on transportation costs. That’s more than $400 per month to cover rent or spend with local businesses — an economic game-changer in a country in which many Americans have trouble covering an unexpected $400 expense.

Improved transit options also deliver significant benefits beyond the household level. Transit improvements connect employers and employees and improve population-wide health and wellbeing — and, critically, better transit particularly benefits existing riders, who are disproportionately lower-income and BIPOC community members.

To realize these immense economic, equity, and environment benefits for current and future Minnesotans, the state Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz must act to provide adequate long-term transit funding. After generations of disinvestment, our transit system needs more than a one-time bail-out. We need to build the system, and we need to operate and maintain it, including ongoing funding to hire enough drivers at competitive wages to grow and retain a workforce that can deliver frequent and reliable service.

That means the Legislature needs to get the funding level right. The Minnesota House voted in favor of a 0.75% sales tax in the metro area, which would allow Metro Transit to quickly build out a quality system and operate that system at an exceptional level of service into the future. In contrast, the state Senate is considering a lower number that would slow growth of the system and impose a ceiling on service quality going forward.

High quality transit would transform the metro and the state for the better. It would make daily travel easier, deliver astounding economic and justice benefits, and help us meet climate goals. Our state elected officials have an extraordinary opportunity to deliver on this vision. It’s time to act.

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Sam Rockwell
Sam Rockwell

Sam Rockwell is executive director of Move Minnesota, a sustainable and equitable transportation advocacy organization. He teaches land use and transportation courses at the University of Minnesota. Sam lives off the #4 bus.