Depending on your politics, you may regard transit investment and transit-oriented development (TOD) as “government boondoggle” or “essential building blocks” for livable communities. Setting aside politics for a moment, let’s look at what TOD is and what it can do for a developing community or region.
At its core, TOD is urban development that harnesses public investment in transit infrastructure to leverage private development, usually with a mix of uses and amenities, within walking distance to bus stops or train stations. In most major urban areas, transit investment and TOD is commonplace and not the least bit controversial. Look what happens on the East Coast or in Chicago if commuter trains stop for weather, accidents or labor problems – people can’t get to work.
Here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, or in places like Denver and Seattle, where a renewed focus on transit has led to new lines, light rail transit (LRT), bus rapid transit and commuter rail, the controversy rages. And it usually centers on how best to maximize use of limited transportation dollars. Still, even here TOD has proven its value.
In Bloomington, Mall of America and Bloomington Central Station are two successful examples of TOD that were planned over years, built in phases and primed with transit investments, first in bus stations, and later in LRT stations, park and ride and related amenities. Each project has much higher transit ridership, lower parking costs, less congestion and programs that support employees who choose transit.
In St. Paul and Minneapolis, the once dying commercial areas along University Avenue now thrive with more than $2 billion in investment in retail, restaurants, entertainment, housing and employment since construction started on the Green Line in 2013. Critics say the demand for development would have occurred without the Green Line; supporters claim University Avenue would be home to adult bookstores and empty storefronts without it. And soon, Major League Soccer will replace a once-polluted bus garage within walking distance of an LRT station.
On a national scale, transit development and transit investment may go up or down, depending on who is in power in Washington. Still, the success of this model is proven and business leaders overwhelmingly favor transit investment for one simple reason: Millennials are attracted to urban work environments with transit options. With a growing labor shortage, our major employers compete for coveted workers to fill the jobs of the future. Without good transit, cultural amenities, affordable housing and livable communities, we will lose this contest for the best and brightest.
I don’t know why funding for transit and transportation is controversial – it’s not an either/or proposition. We need both. Billions of dollars in reinvestment in roads and bridges has been deferred and bottled up in the process. More recently, politicians have campaigned on transit versus transportation. Meanwhile, drivers and commuters suffer in gridlock. It’s time to find a long-term solution for all modes of transportation if this metropolitan area is to remain competitive. Let’s face it, we can no longer rely on our great weather to attract people to our region.