Dakota County Shoots Future in Foot in War of the CWADS

Unless you’re a transit nerd, this summer’s news about Dakota County leaving CTIB probably seemed like “inside baseball.” (Most people’s response: “Ummm, see-what now?”) The story relies on knowledge about the intricate and compromised way that transit funding works in the Twin Cities. Even though I’ve spent years talking with people about it, I still don’t quite understand all the details (e.g. the exact differences between the CTIB and the TAB).

A quick explainer. Even though we have a seven-county metro area, shaped by the Met Council, lots of our newly-constructed transit is funded through the allocation of a five-county small sales tax governed by a separate board called the Counties Transit Improvement Board (or CTIB). That’s a big part of where “local match” money for projects like the Green and Blue LRT lines and their extensions, the Northstar rail, and other projects comes from.

The CTIB arrangement is voluntary. Counties sign up to tax themselves in exchange for some control over how the money gets spent. This delicate money pooling arrangement (on the board, each county gets two members, and the Met Council gets one) leads to challenges because both the majority of actually-existing tax revenues and transit usage exists in only two counties (Hennepin and Ramsey). Meanwhile, the remaining three counties (Anoka, Washington, and Dakota) have huge challenges implementing transit because of their existing land use patterns. (See also, the CWADS: Carver, Washington, Anoka, Dakota, and Scott...) This geographic imbalance of transit potential, transit need, and transit expectations helps explain how and why some of our decisions are so messy.

The existing balance changed this summer when (#brexit-style) Dakota County staged a mini-revolt against the CTIB system by officially withdrawing from the 5-county agreement. ("DaCexit?")

Here’s a bit from the June Star Tribune story on the decision:
Dakota County is planning to leave the regional body that funds transit projects across the Twin Cities.

The County Board voted in committee Tuesday to take steps to withdraw from the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), which pools tax money for projects such as light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).

County leaders have raised concerns about whether membership is worth it. Though CTIB dollars have funded local projects including the Red Line BRT, a lot of the tax money that Dakota County contributes goes toward projects in other counties.

“I think we could do so much more if we kept it ourselves,” Commissioner Liz Workman said.

There you have it. Get ready for even more heavily subsidized opt-out buses bigger park and rides or something.

[Dakota County affordable housing is only in a few spots.]
Dakota County Geography 101

The decision to leave is a long time coming for Dakota County, which has teetered for decades on a knife’s edge between urban and exurban views of what the Twin Cities should look like. I should know, I grew up in Dakota County and still hang out there all the time. (Hi mom!)

For one thing, Dakota County is huge. It’s the same size as Hennepin County, i.e. massive, stretching from the edge of Saint Paul deep through farm country and all the way to the Northfield border. At the same time, it’s not very dense. The entire county population is about 350,000 people; compare that to Hennepin County’s 1.5 million. Its most urban (read: affordable, somewhat walkable) parts are first-ring suburbs like West Saint Paul, South Saint Paul, and small cities like Hastings. And then there’s a huge swath of second-ring cul-de-sac burbs like Apple Valley, Eagan, Burnsville, Inver Grove Heights, and more. Finally you get some third-ring and exurban places like Lakeville, Rosemount, and Farmington, where it’s not uncommon to have brand new homes literally planted in cornfields. This sprawling geography makes coherent policy a challenging political proposition.

Despite claims to victimhood from Dakota County Commissioners, Dakota County leaders are responsible for their own transit failure. The County, especially the Northern border areas, has a lot of opportunity for transit oriented development. But without leadership, they’re abandoning a walkable future and, years from now, Dakota County will be much worse off because of it.

[Annapolis Street may not look like much, but this is the border between two counties.]

The Classic Case of West Saint Paul and Robert Street

[The strip.]
The first-ring suburb of West Saint Paul offers the best example of how Dakota County transit politics plays out. West Saint Paul is a small square suburban city of about 20,000 people running from Annapolis Street, along Highway 52, South almost to Highway 110 and East over to Mendota Heights. The city is most famous for Robert Street, a massive post-war STROAD if there ever was one, a wide 50s strip lined today with automobile retail of every possible variety. Growing up, Robert Street is where our family went to shop. a wide 5-lane undivided road lined with parking lots and drive-thrus: Payless Shoes, Signal Hills Mall (B. Daltons, Herberger’s), Chuck E. Cheese, Ponderosa Steakhouse, the WSP library, Carbone’s, Cina 5 Theater, Granny Donuts, the non-super Target, the McDonald’s Playland on the hill, etc.

These days, I rarely visit, because I don’t like big box stores and the street is almost unbikeable. But if anything, in the intervening years the street has only become more of an automobile strip, adding things like B-dubs, Starbuxes, a massive WalMart, a SuperTarget, little places with great Latin American food, and every other suburban chain store you can think of (including a 5-8 Club franchise owned by a woman who was in my graduating high school class).

The other thing you’ll notice if you go to Robert Street these days is the construction. The street is being completely re-done, after much planning, to add medians and nicer ADA sidewalks. It was an expensive, multi-year project. When there was an election during the construction period, an anti-tax candidate  emerged to run against the road construction project, Scott Walker-style, under the “they’re wasting our money with sidewalks” platform. He channeled people’s frustration over road construction and taxes, and got himself elected mayor.

Since then, Meisinger has taken opportunities to lambast street amenities like sidewalks. And one of the consequences of Meisinger’s election is that ongoing planning for transit on Robert Street has been killed (as I was told) “pending land use planning changes in West Saint Paul.” It’s kind of like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, where transit or rail projects are waiting a magical political sea-change.

[Changes to school district composition over 30 years.]
Ignoring Suburban Poverty

West Saint Paul’s political situation is revealing because the city is in the midst of rapid change. When I went to high school here in the 1990s, the graduating class was just about all white; today, according to my old English teacher, it’s now 1/3 students of color and growing more so every year. Similarly, the city demographics are rapidly changing and becoming more diverse, even as much of the housing stock and infrastructure (like Robert Street) ages to the point of obsolescence.

West Saint Paul is also an exemplar of another more troubling dynamic, where race, poverty and housing form a distinct suburban pattern. This pattern becomes very noticeable for me when, from time to time, usually after the #62 bus service ends, I ride the #68 bus running down Robert Street South from Downtown. Even late at night, the bus is full of people of color riding to and from work and to homes in West Saint Paul or points further South.

In most post-war suburbs, especially first-ring cities like West Saint Paul, the bulk of the affordable housing is concentrated along narrow corridors of land near freeways. (See also, these two examples.) For many families, these slender swaths of apartment buildings represent the only places where they can find decent housing and good schools, especially in the crunched low-to-middle range of rental property. But moving into these suburban areas comes with a cost, as the sidewalks and transit in places like West Saint Paul are almost always lacking. And forget about riding a bicycle! It’s all but impossible (though people somehow do it anyway).

As they age and the homes get older and less fashionable, and as infrastructure like Robert Street comes due for expensive re-construction, cities like West Saint Paul (or many first-ring suburbs) get caught in an economic and political vice: struggling and/or aging middle-class homeowners decrying taxes and economic marginalization on one hand, rising costs and decreasing tax-base on the other. Cities can get caught within a vicious cycle where disinvestment threatens to spiral out of control. The end point is a place like Ferguson, Missouri, though (thankfully) nowhere in the Twin Cities is yet near that level of economic marginalization.

Quality transit investments are one of the few things that might help cities like West Saint Paul, catalyzing density that gives cities like these a chance to balance the tax books, creating mixed-use transit-oriented development that is in hot demand. Without it, the bottom line looks bleak.

Instead, the end result is that West Saint Paul, Dakota County, and the region will become more fragmented and polarized. For wealthier enclaves like Lakeville, the politics of urban separatism is appealing. Meanwhile, the transit riders close to the border will continue to struggle.

[South Robert Street wasteland.]

The Saint Paul Sacrifice

Living on Saint Paul’s West Side, a half-mile from the County line, it’s maddening to think that there will be no regional transit cooperation coming from the Dakota County side of the border. In Saint Paul proper, it’s no exaggeration to say that South Robert Street is one of the worst streets I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. The sidewalk is abominable, narrow, and abuts the curb. There are no bike lanes, and the five lanes (!) of traffic move at very high speeds for a supposedly urban area. The absolute dignity vacuum here is one reason why the street is lined with half-century-old vacant lots, dilapidated surface parking, and abandoned commercial buildings the likes of which are rarely seen outside of ghost towns. And yet, these properties are within walking distance of booming downtown Saint Paul! The whole thing is an urban tragedy.

Robert Street doesn’t get much better as you travel towards the county border, with lots of historic buildings that need maintenance. Climbing the bluff towards Annapolis, the street becomes a bit calmer, and there are a few nice developments near the county line. But in general, this is a corridor full of unrealized potential. A transit connection from downtown into Dakota County would be a big boon for improving some of this underused property, and would dramatically improve the lives of thousands of people who’d like more options about getting around.

Given the way that the very idea of transit seems to infuriate the right-wing, I suppose it’s not surprising that Dakota County decided to scuttle cooperation. But for the thousands of people living on the seam between Dakota and Ramsey Counties, it’s a massive abandonment of those who would benefit from quality transit connecting Dakota County with Saint Paul.

I wish our political leaders could do better, but with the way that Dakota County politics is playing out, there’s little hope for Robert Street or Dakota County anytime soon. When Meisinger was elected, Robert Street transit planning was put on hold. To make matters worse, the “Dakota County pull out” comes on top of the de-funding of Southwest Light Rail (aka SWRLT aka Green Line Extension) at the legislature. Without the state share of the project, the money will come out of CTIB funding at the expense of East Metro projects like Riverview, Orange Line, or Gateway. The combination of political shenanigans leaves any notion of Dakota County transit investment about as plausible as Donald Trump winning over black voters.

This is to say that the county border seems more and more like an invisible border wall every day.

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