Transit crucial for city politics

Cati Vanden Breul

NEDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth article in a five-part series about Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections. The articles lead toward the general election Nov. 8.

Not everyone who uses mass transit is a satisfied customer.

Kristen Isensee, a psychology sophomore, said she rides the bus to and from campus each day.

But she said buses aren’t always reliable.

“Sometimes they don’t come on time, or they don’t come at all,” Isensee said.

Improving public transportation is a problem that public officials face at every level of government.

This year, as the city council and mayoral candidates in Minneapolis and St. Paul campaign for votes, they’re offering different ideas to improve public transportation in the Twin Cities.

Although most of the funding for public transit doesn’t come from city dollars, local government officials still make decisions that affect transportation.

Metro Transit, which includes city buses and the light rail, receives mostly state and federal funding, in addition to fare revenue.

The biggest problem with Metro Transit right now is lack of funding, said Fred Abadi, deputy director of Public Works for the city of Minneapolis.

But city officials can improve public transportation in ways other than funding, he said.

The city of Minneapolis, along with Metro Transit, the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is conducting an 18-month study looking at how to make public transportation in Minneapolis more efficient over the next 10 years.

The Minneapolis City Council and Mayor R.T. Rybak approved and allocated funding for the study. The plan will focus on necessary steps to make transit run more smoothly in Minneapolis, according to the city’s Web site.

Nacho Diaz, director of Metro Transit services for the Metropolitan Council, said city officials can offer their input when the council has public hearings on route changes or fare increases.

“They can raise objections or concerns and the council does take into account comments,” Diaz said.

Isensee said she would like to see more buses devoted to each route because her morning bus ride is so full; drivers have to turn people away.

“As soon as we’re six or seven blocks from campus, they can’t pick anyone up,” she said.

But students’ transit options could improve soon because the state Legislature has approved funding for a light rail line to go through the University’s campus from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.

Jeremy Hanson, communications director for Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the mayor was a strong proponent of the line, and his actions helped secure the funding.

He said the mayor helped develop coalitions such as the Regional Council of Mayors – a council of 50 mayors in the metro area – and a coalition of executives from major state corporations to advocate for funding at the state Legislature.

“One of his talents is to bring people together with a common vision in innovative ways to help them work together toward their goal,” Hanson said.

Anthropology and global studies sophomore Breanna Kelly said she’d heard of the proposed line and definitely would use it.

“There would be tons of ridership on campus,” she said.

Similar to Isensee, Kelly said she had experienced overcrowding on buses, and thought a light rail line would alleviate that problem.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Rybak’s opponent, said a referendum currently before the state Legislature could help secure more funding for public transportation in the future.

The referendum, which residents will vote on next year, would add an amendment to the state constitution dedicating funds to public transportation.

“Other regions have a dedicated stream of money available, but we don’t,” McLaughlin said.

The amendment would set aside a portion of Minnesota’s motor vehicle sales tax revenue to fund transit in the metro area.

“The mayor needs to be a huge advocate for that,” he said.

Ward 3 City Council candidate Diane Hofstede said that as a council member she would identify key partners for improving mass transit in the Twin Cities.

“The area is not going to grow and will not be competitive if we don’t have a mass transit strategy,” Hofstede said.

Neighborhoods should also play a role in lessening Minneapolis’ dependency on cars, candidates said.

Hofstede’s opponent, Green Party candidate Aaron Neumann, said neighborhoods should use neighborhood revitalization funding to create new bike paths, and that the city should match the funding.

“Modern transportation doesn’t always include the bus,” Neumann said.

Similarly, Ward 2 candidate Cara Letofsky said the city can encourage residents to travel without using cars.

She said she’d like to create city zoning codes requiring more bike lockers in the city, and use city funding to improve bus shelters and make it easier to understand schedules.

“The bus system here isn’t very user-friendly,” Letofsky said.

Abadi said improving the transit system would require cooperation from the Twin Cities, the state and federal governments, and the Metropolitan Council.