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Transportation planning struggles to keep pace with new development

Transportation planning struggles to keep pace with new development

It was during a recent trip to Minneapolis when, stuck in heavy traffic during the evening rush hour, I began to wonder to myself: Is this (albeit on a smaller scale) what Rochester is going to look like in 10-20 years?

Tens of thousands of people now commute into downtown Rochester each day, many from outside city limits, and that's only going to increase under DMC, which aims to create 35,000-45,000 new jobs in the next two decades.

Traffic congestion downtown is minimal right now but we're already experiencing growing pains due to, among other things, increased demand for daytime parking and limited public transportation options.

Now, it's fair to say the problem has already been diagnosed time and time again. There is a consensus among those involved — from the DMC Economic Development Agency to the mayor's office — that Rochester needs to embrace new ideas to solve its most pressing transportation issues. As DMC's Patrick Seeb told us in December:

Every city is dealing with the legacy systems they have in place ... the road infrastructure, the parking infrastructure.... really the automobile-oriented, single person per car kind of approach ... I think most people have come to recognize that won't work in Rochester if [the city] is to grow and succeed as it hopes to.

So if more parking is not the answer (and clearly it's not, judging by every study that has been done), then what is? Light rail? More park-and-ride locations? A new transportation hub like the one outlined in the DMC plan?

We need answers — and soon. The time to start acting was yesterday. There are now hundreds of millions of dollars of projects in the works (many of which have been outlined in recent reports) and yet there are still no new concrete plans for transportation infrastructure in the DMC district. 

One could even make the argument that a grassroots organization advocating for an electric streetcar system along Second Street SW represents the most serious advancement made so far. Either that, or a bike share program.

Both good ideas, of course. But not nearly enough progress when you consider all the money spent on transportation planning over the past two years. 

Time for decisions

The frustration was evident during last month's DMCC board meeting when members grilled Richard Freese, director of public works, and Ken Holte, a transportation engineer with Minneapolis-based SRF Consulting Group, about the lack of progress that has been made up to this point.

Here's what R.T. Rybak, the former Minneapolis mayor and current DMCC board member, had to say following a brief presentation by Holte:

I don’t believe what I’ve just heard is adequate for what we need at this point. The fact of the matter is we’re now going to be looking at a number of different development projects. That’s incredibly exciting. The private market is responding. The part of this that is going too slow is the strategy on how we’re going to move people around here.

The transportation plan is still stuck in the second phase of a three-part process. According to Holte, that consists of hiring new consultants to evaluate previous studies and "build upon the DMC work that’s been built to date and to take it to the next level of detail and refinement.” 

Graphic: DMC

But Rybak insisted that there was simply not enough detail so far to integrate the work with the other development already taking place. Fellow board members, including James Campbell, echoed Rybak's concerns.

"It just seems we’re back forming new committees and doing more plans," said Campbell, the former CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota. "It’s time we start to really make some decisions on what it is we’re going to do.”

Mayor Ardell Brede, who has a spot on the board, later chimed in: “This all seems very vague. Where are the specifics?”

What's the hold-up?

Put on the defense, Freese said that more planning is needed before any big decisions are made. Without enough detail, he explained, the city could risk losing funding from outside sources. 

Under DMC, $1.8 billion in investment is expected to be put toward transportation infrastructure. Freese noted the city has been operating under the DMC plan's vision of leveraging as much local funds as possible to get additional funding from state and federal agencies.

Responding to Rybak's criticism, Freese explained that he "hate[s] bureaucracy as much as anybody" but these things take time:

Mr. Rybak, I could sit with you and probably between the two of us, we could figure out in the next month what we should do. It would be our respective opinions and we could probably agree on what those should be. But that won’t get us any money down the road ...  We’ve got to follow the process and unfortunately that process is a lot longer than any of us want it to be.

Rybak's response: “This is more a transportation project than anything else" — a statement he has repeatedly made regarding DMC.

While conceding that his knowledge of transportation planning may have gaps, Rybak, a three-term mayor, said it's up to SRF and the other consultants to empower the board with the tools needed to start making real decisions. 

He called the lack of information presented to this point "completely and 100 percent unacceptable." He added, "I need to be very blunt about this because unless we turn this around, we are going to jeopardize this project.”

Not if, but when

There is no question that something will get done; it's just a matter of when. The DMC Development plan, which was unanimously passed by the DMCC board and the city council, gives a clear direction as to what needs to happen:

Accommodating Mayo Clinic growth along with other private commercial and residential development will require substantial mode shift from single-occupant vehicles to transit, non-motorized travel, and ridesharing.

It's worth noting that more than a third of transportation spending anticipated under DMC will go toward building parking structures to accompany new developments. So no one is suggesting cars are simply going to disappear.

But at least, with approval of the development plan, we have created a strong coalition of partners with a singular vision of changing the culture of how we travel into and around the urban core.

We know it's going to require some kind of rail connection between St. Marys and downtown; improved pedestrian connections between buildings and businesses, whether on the street, subway or skyway; and transit access into the downtown that incentivizes workers to park elsewhere and ride in.

Now it's time to put those ideas into action. No longer can we sit back and wait for private development to dictate our next step. We must be proactive.

As Rybak stated at the meeting, this entire project depends on it.

Notes: The board will discuss the transportation plan again at its meeting on Thursday, June 23. Also, while on the topic, I would be remiss not to mention a recent report from Twin Cities Business on plans to privately fund the proposed high-speed rail line connecting Rochester to the Twin Cities metro.

About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.

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