Streams

Twin Cities Planning Organization Saw 'Golden Age'

Friday, December 31, 2010 - 04:31 PM

(St. Paul, Minn. -- Dan Olson, MPR) A powerful layer of Twin Cities government that many voters have never heard of has a new chair.

On Wednesday Minn. Governor-elect Mark Dayton appointed Susan Haigh to replace Peter Bell as chair of the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning board that oversees transit in the Twin Cities.

Bell is the Met Council's longest serving chair, and the Republican appointee has overseen the completion of several major transit projects. He says the Met Council experienced a "golden age" on his watch.

The chair and sixteen other members of the Met Council are unelected; they serve at the pleasure of the governor.

Incoming Chairwoman Susan Haigh said she doesn't favor an elected council but rather one which might include appointees who are also local elected officials.

"A pure elected Met Council would be a Council in which it would become a mini legislature and I don't think we need that," she said. "We already have a legislature."

In fact, the Legislature decides the fate and supplies a good share of the Met Council's $780 million annual budget.

Its activities are pervasive. The Met Council supervises the seven Twin Cities wastewater treatment plants. It oversees Metro Transit, the region's bus and rail transit services. It manages 55,000 acres of regional parks.

And it attempts to guide growth which includes sprawl, the leap-frog development that radiates from central cities and inner ring suburbs.

Outgoing Chairman Peter Bell, whose final day is Monday, highlights the achievements of his eight years leading the Met Council.

"A triple-A credit rating, we have not increased our property tax levy at all for eight years, almost doubled the park-and-ride spaces from 15,000 to 29,000," he said.

Bell says his term coincides with what he calls a golden age of transit: opening the Hiawatha and Northstar rail service, expanding bus-only shoulder lanes and the start of construction of the Central Corridor light rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis.

Bell's critics on the right regard some of the transit expansion as expensive services that don't move enough people.

On managing sprawl, Bell's view is that development must be balanced with freedom and personal choice.

"The rights of people to live where they want to live," he said, "and any Met Council chair that errs too far in either direction, kind of the top down -- 'we're going to control sprawl or we're going to put a cap on it' -- and create huge disincentives for growth patterns will be in trouble."

Bell and others who work with him say his approach has been to make peace with local elected officials, many of whom who see home building and other development as a way to build their city's tax base.

Edina mayor Jim Hovland says Bell and the Met Council have encouraged local officials to rein in sprawl and accept higher density development.

"I think what the Metropolitan Council has said if you want to take advantage of things like regional infrastructure, specifically waste water treatment, which is going to be a more and more challenging issue with respect with environmental requirements as time passes, you need to be developing at a certain level of density to make it worthwhile for us to able to get you on the regional system," he said.

But sprawl remains a feature of Twin Cities growth.

Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota and an urban development book author, said Peter Bell and the Council have become agents for building new communities rather than rebuilding the existing ones.

"The same huge public expenditures, more than a billion dollars worth of debt that has been building and supporting infrastructure for greenfield communities at the edge could have been rebuilding the roads and streets and parks in the older suburbs," he said. "Places like Richfield or East Bloomington or Brooklyn Park or Brooklyn Center or Columbia Heights which really declined dramatically during this period."

Twin Cities sprawl may change or even slow because of factors outside Met Council power, such as rising gas prices and an aging population.

Bell said a big challenge on the horizon for the new chairwoman, Susan Haigh, and the next Council is how to pay for the existing and planned transit services.

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