Transit priorities

I have mixed feelings about streetcars. But if we’re going to pick on them, let’s do it for the right reasons, like the fact that they don’t have dedicated right of way.  Yesterday the Pioneer Press reported that the Met Council was presented with a report about streetcars that “questions whether the costs outweigh the gains”.

Dollars are one way to measure cost, and if we’re spending too much to get gains, that is bad. How much money do we spend on transit elsewhere to get gains?

The proposed Nicollet streetcar in Minneapolis will cost $200 million and serve 9,200 riders in 2030. Bus Rapid Transit proposed for the Gateway Corridor will cost $469 million and serve 9,300 riders in 2030.  That’s double the cost per rider.  The Met Council has already adopted its Transportation Policy Plan, which includes the build-out of Gateway in the “Current Revenue Scenario” (meaning they don’t need any new money from the legislature or others). Bottineau and Southwest LRT also come in with price tags significantly higher per rider than the Minneapolis streetcar (Southwest is more than double).

Yes, we could be choosing arterial bus improvements on Nicollet instead of streetcars. That might be good.  But we could also be prioritizing expenditures across our regional transit system – looking at projects that have the highest cost-effectiveness per rider, or that most effectively address current inequities in job or destination access.

If we were really serious about costs and benefits, we’d be building projects like Hennepin Avenue Bus Rapid Transit tomorrow, which has a cost per rider 55 times lower than Gateway Corridor.  Instead, it’s on the “Increased Revenue Scenario” list, waiting in the breadline with the other high-value bus improvement projects, for the legislature to maybe, someday, hopefully fund.

Land of 9,999 Lakes

The final version of the Met Council’s “Feasibility Assessment of Approaches to Water Sustainability in the Northeast Metro” has been released.  I posted my thoughts about this study before, but here are more rantings mostly pulled from my twitter feed.

The study says conservation of water is probably cheaper, but that’s not in this study, and we’ll get to it later (date 2015 TBD). From the study:

The alternatives evaluated should be viewed as examples. The best option for moving forward may be a hybrid of the examples considered in this study, and could involve approaches that were not considered in this study. For example, communities in the northeast metro could utilize less expensive approaches. These might include conservation or stormwater reuse to reduce groundwater pumping before making large-scale investments in alternative infrastructure solutions. Such a plan could couple these less expensive options with aggressive monitoring of groundwater and surface water, and set triggers for further action in the event these less expensive approaches are not effective.

So, we didn’t analyze the best and cheapest options, but we went ahead and did some demand forecasting so we could size some pipes anyway.

Households in many of the communities in the study area pay less for potable water each year than a family might pay towards their smart phone bill each month.

Water rates, from page 6 of the study

Water rates, from page 6 of the study

My household only has two smartphones, and we pay about $140 per month.  Add a few teens to the mix, and you get the point.  Water this cheap is obviously a triumph of civil engineering (and socialized infrastructure costs), but will likely make meaningful attempts at conservation difficult.

The study expects water consumption to grow 56% by 2040 while population will grow 37%.  Historically, population growth in Minnesota has outstripped increases in (permitted) water use.  From 1988 to 2011, population in the state grew about 24% while water use increased only 12%. Like electric utilities, water utilities nationally are also struggling with declining sales. The Met Council study doesn’t present any data on water usage trends in the study area communities (that I found).  I’m not sure why they are projecting this large increase in water use per capita (perhaps they are planning for many more golf courses?).  If any enterprising reader wants to dig in to the DNR data, trends for the counties included in the study area could be produced.

Searching the study for the words “grass” or “lawn” yields zero results.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the study doesn’t really attempt to analyze what the end use of water is in the study area, although looking at the “peak usage ratio” hints that a lot of it is landscape-related.

For just the operating costs of each alternative infrastructure solution (not including capital costs), you could pay each household $30 to $422 each year to use less. Annual operating costs of the alternatives vary from $1.3 million to $20 million.  The study area will include 189,470 people in 2040.

In other parts of the country with water supply issues, homeowners are paid to turn turf grass into water-efficient landscaping.  In the California Bay Area, homeowners can get a rebate of $1 per square foot for lawn removal.

For the some capital cost as the medium-priced option in the study, homeowners could be paid to remove 6 square miles of grass at a rebate cost of $1 per square foot. Plus they could be paid to remove 129 football fields-worth (7.5 million square feet) in every future year for the equivalent operating costs of that option.

Photo: Sprinkler, Creative Commons licensed by flickr user Shaylor

Creating a low-carbon transportation system for MSP: Part One, Baselining

My latest at does the carbon accounting which should have been part of the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan developed by the Met Council.

Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the 7-county metro adopted by the Metropolitan Council, includes moderately strong language about addressing climate change.  But the main implementation tool we’ve seen so far from the Council, the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In fact, it doesn’t even start where it should, with a baseline of emissions.

In this and future posts, I’ll try to do what I think the Draft Transportation Policy Plan should have done – identify where we’re starting from and where we need to go in terms of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s got charts, so you’ll want to read the rest.

My comments on the Draft Transportation Policy Plan

CurrentRevenueThe Metropolitan Council held a public hearing tonight on their draft Transportation Policy Plan. If you care about transit or transportation issues in the region, you should comment (you can do so through October 1). Here are four comments I have on the plan:

  1. Our urban areas are significantly underserved by this plan. Even under the “increased revenue scenario”, we will spend $5 on transit to serve suburban commuters for every $1 we spend on transit improvements to places where transit makes economic sense (see here for my attempt at a geographic breakdown of projects). The Met Council, in the Thrive 2040 plan, has said they want to match transit service to the number of riders and intensity of land use. This plan does not do that.
  2. The plan currently prioritizes projects like Gateway BRT (9,000 riders at $50,000 per rider) over projects like Hennepin Ave BRT (23,000 riders at $896 per rider). This is an example of how our urban areas (that are expected to grow significantly) are underrepresented in this plan.
  3. The Transportation Policy Plan, as an implementation plan of Thrive 2040, should identify how our transportation system will be planned to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (another goal of Thrive). While the plan mentions “reducing vehicle trips”, there is no analysis in the plan of whether the scenarios presented will increase or decrease emissions from our regional transportation system. We can’t wait another 10 years for the next update of the regional plan to take significant action on climate change.
  4. It’s definitely not all bad. The Met Council for the first time has identified regional priorities for a bicycle network, which will give communities the ability to apply for funds to upgrade their local network if it matches the regional plan. Many of the transit projects identified are much needed improvements (Hennepin, Chicago, West Broadway), but are simply not adequately prioritized.

Questions about the northeast water supply plan

Over at, I ask some questions about the Met Council’s new northeast metro water supply plan.  Here is a big one:

Where is the conservation alternative?  The cost and feasibility of  reducing water use are not analyzed as part of the report.  Building nothing and simply asking/incentivizing/requiring people to use less may be the cheapest option.  According to the report, water use in 2010 was 92 gallons per person, per day in these communities. The ratio of peak day demand to average day demand ranges from 1.7:1 in Forest Lake to 5.9:1 in Lexington.  The report hints that this is “mainly attributed to irrigation and outdoor water use needs”.  Sprinkling lawns in other words.  Many options exist for conserving (potable) water – from retrofitting toilets, sinks and showers, to using captured rainwater to irrigate, to simply paying people to remove lawns and replacing them with low-water alternatives.  For the cost of the alternatives to serve all northeast communities with new water supply (~$600 million), you could pay every household over $1,400 to remove lawn, and keep paying them $40 every year after that.  Without an analysis of conservation alternatives, this report seems inadequate.

Read on.

Strengthening our region’s response to climate change

My latest at is a review of how the draft version of Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the Twin Cities, addresses climate change.

Our region certainly can’t address this issue alone, but we have a responsibility to do our part.  The science also says we can’t wait another ten years to start addressing the problem.  However, as this plan is currently written, the specifics on climate response are too ambiguous, and risk being watered down during implementation.The regional plan is one of the state’s most significant pieces of land use and transportation policy. By fully embracing state goals and calling for strong response, this could be a document that makes Minnesota a national leader in climate change response.

Read the rest.

Water for our future

Over at I have a new post on the importance of water supply planning for the next regional plan.

What does all this have to do with Minnesota?  We have tons of water, right?  Well, on the surface yes, but we’re using our groundwater much faster than it’s being replaced, and that’s a problem.  That was one of the main topics at a Thrive MSP 2040 Roundtable discussion I attended a number of weeks ago, and have been meaning to post about since.  The 7-county region now gets70 percent of our water from groundwater sources, up from 15 percent in the 50′s.  In some places this means we’re reducing groundwater levels by over a foot a year.

Solar access, land use and 30-year planning

Over at, I wrote a piece about the mostly unknown requirement that cities in the metro address solar access in their comprehensive plans, and how we could improve to address the purpose of the requirement.

By law, every community in the seven-county metro is supposed to adopt a comprehensive plan that includes “an element for protection and development of access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems”.  This requirement dates back to 1978, when there was anoil crisis and gasoline was $1.30 per gallon (or, close to what it was in 2011inflation-adjusted).  In 1979, Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House.  Reagan took down the solar panels in ’86 and oil got a lot cheaperthrough the late 90′s.

The requirement remains however, even if few communities have ever done anything related to solar after they developed some language for their comprehensive plan.  As we enter this season of plan updates, perhaps it’s time for another look at how solar access, land use, energy and other issues are interrelated, and what are vision is for our energy systems.  Solar power is cheaper than ever, and the message is pretty clear on the need to start decarbonizing our energy system.

Thrive MSP 2040 is live

The Metropolitan Council has officially kicked off their public engagement campaign for the 2040 regional plan – called Thrive MSP 2040.  I know you don’t like the name, but pay attention because this plan will eventually shape all the regional policy plans (growth, transportation, housing, natural resources) and set the requirements for individual community comprehensive plans.

No modern planning process is complete without some an interactive “ideas” website, and Met Council has theirs. I submitted some ideas, which I think you should vote for.