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Expanding Options, Expanding Opportunity


By Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

Housing and transportation, in that order, are typically a family’s largest expenditures. In both cases—because families and incomes vary substantially—one size, one situation does not fit all. Ideally, if we plan with current and future residents in mind, a wide range of housing options—by price and by type—will be readily available in the Twin Cities region: condos, townhomes, apartments, and single-family rental and owner-occupied homes. And travel from this varied housing to key destinations will be practical with a wide range of affordable transportation options—transit, biking, and walking—in addition to the choice of driving.

Unfortunately, we know that is not yet the case. Today, only 25 percent of households in the Twin Cities have access to convenient transit (meaning: service at least every 30 minutes, 6 days a week). This leaves too many residents stranded without realistic options or dependent on driving—and at the mercy of rising gasoline prices. Housing that is affordable to a day care provider, construction worker, or retiree can be hard to find, particularly in locations close to entry-level jobs and in locations with convenient transit.

Three efforts that can expand options and opportunity going forward:

  1. Greater consumer awareness about the interplay of housing and transportation costs
  2. Building new units or preserving existing units of affordable housing. This is impacted both by insuring an adequate inventory of affordably priced housing and by locating, to a higher degree, new housing in locations with enough transit service to make reduced car ownership (or reduced car travel) possible.
  3. Increasing transit service (at the regional level) and designs for walking and biking (at the neighborhood level).

Aeon-pull-quote_WEBReducing car and driving costs makes housing more affordable.  People looking for housing should assess the transportation costs associated with a particular neighborhood, just as they assess the anticipated energy bills of a future home.  And transportation costs can vary substantially (see the CNT Farmington and Longfellow case study (PDF)). A neighborhood with transit options that makes it possible for a family or individual to own one less car translates into $8,000 per year in savings and the ability to afford a $100,000 mortgage, a huge boost toward affordable housing. TLC will be creating a transportation literacy training program to assist social service providers and others in understanding the cost and availability of transportation options in the region. (More on that soon.)

More housing options, more transit-oriented housing. The current supply of housing in locations well served by transit is set, but the future supply is not.  Supply can increase in two ways: more housing and more transit.  More housing means preserving current affordable housing and building more by encouraging developers to build upward (i.e. more density) in locations well served by transit not outward in locations not well served by or suited to transit.


Some developers have already responded to increased demand for affordable housing near transit. Residents of the Episcopal Homes Seabury development in Saint Paul are served by buses on University Avenue and will also have easy access to the Central Corridor light rail line when it opens in 2014.

We know the region’s population is expected to grow substantially over the next several decades. We know the market for housing has changed dramatically—with far greater demand for attached and rental units vs. single-family, owner-occupied units. The market for housing in walkable communities close to transit is also hugely under supplied. A survey by the Met Council estimates that the market for transit is three times the current number of riders.[i] And a national survey found that a large majority of Millennials (the largest home buying demographic) want to live in walkable urban settings.[ii]

But we can’t simply trust that new housing will serve these changing consumer preferences for housing type and location. Planning for the future is essential. The Metropolitan Council is engaging more deeply in housing issues than previous Councils and will produce a housing plan by the end of next year. The Met Council is also currently crafting Thrive MSP 2040, the region’s land use plan and foundation for the region’s transportation, sewer, and open space/parks plans. Thrive MSP, through the adoption of a preferred policy scenario for future growth, can have a big impact on where and how future housing is built.  Thrive MSP, the regional transportation and housing plans, and the local comprehensive plans they inform, can and should all work seamlessly to expand affordable housing and transportation options.

More transit and better designed communities. We can put more homes where the current transit is, but we also need to greatly expand the footprint of convenient transit.  Many seniors want to age in place and many families, for a variety of reasons, are happily wedded to their community. Consequently, the transit system needs to grow outward especially where current population density would support ridership, including in the Southwest and Bottineau corridors.  It also needs to grow qualitatively by providing faster routes in key urban corridors through investment in rapid bus lines. Finally, a large percentage of daily trips are under 3 miles, but are still made by car.  Better street and community design can make biking and walking the convenient choice for more of these trips.

Understanding the intersection of housing and transportation, and expanding options for both, is key to planning for a better future. We look forward to further examining this topic in future blogs.


[i] 2007 Metro Residents Survey, Met Council, February 2008


Central Corridor Light Rail – What’s left to do before we can ride the Green Line?

By Barb Thoman, Executive Director

Many Twin Cities’ residents are eager to start riding the new light rail transit service in the Central Corridor, the Green Line. People see completed sections of track, beautiful new stations complete with lights and signage and wonder why the line isn’t opening until 2014. Several of you have even called to ask us this. In response, we did some checking and here is what we learned. Despite excellent progress on construction (more than 68 percent complete!), there are still major things left to do before the line can begin serving passengers.



Thousands of construction workers have contributed to the excellent progress on the Green Line.

The light rail cars – Metro Transit has ordered 47 light rail vehicles (LRVs) for the Green Line. The first one was recently delivered, and will be unveiled officially on October 10th at Target Field Station in Minneapolis. Rail cars will continue to be delivered at a rate of about 2-3 vehicles per month over the next year. As each car is received, it must be fully tested and commissioned for service. This will involve running the LRVs on the Hiawatha Line in the airport tunnel segment to test mechanical and system reliability.

Electrical substations – Fourteen traction power substations will convert alternating electrical current to direct current which will power the light rail vehicles. Installation of the substations began in August 2012, and is ongoing at a rate of one per month.

Completion of stations – If you have not checked out the Green Line stations lately, you might be surprised! The West Bank Station is particularly impressive. All of the 18 stations should be structurally complete by the end of 2012, but additional work will remain to install technology systems such as electronic signs and ticket vending machines.  Installations of station artwork has begun, but most of the art will be installed in 2013.



The Raymond Avenue station is one of several Green Line stations now considered "structurally complete." All 18 new light rail stations should be structurally complete by the end of 2012.

The West Bank Vertical Station on the University of Minnesota campus shown under construction this summer.

Train power and signals systems – While most of the civil construction, including tracks and station platforms, will be completed by the end of this year, much work remains to be done on the systems that will power the trains and that will control train movements. Poles for the overhead catenary system that holds the power lines are being installed now, but the power lines themselves will not be installed until 2013. Also in 2013, the signal system that train operators will follow and that will warn drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians of approaching trains will be installed.



Crews are already installing catenary poles along the light rail line, but corresponding power lines will follow next year.

Vehicle maintenance Facility in downtown Saint Paul – Construction is underway, but much work remains to be done to get this $43 million facility ready to store and maintain light rail vehicles.

Hiring and training of rail operators and vehicle mechanics – The addition of the Green Line will more than double the size of the light rail operation in the region! This means that many more train operators and rail vehicle mechanics must be hired and trained. This will take place over the course of 2013 as the new light rail vehicles are delivered, so that staff is ready to begin integration testing and pre-revenue operations in early 2014.

Testing, testing, testing – Once all the systems and staff are in place, a detailed series of testing must be completed to make sure that all the different project elements (trains, systems, operations facility, signals, and switches) communicate with each other, that everything is working properly and ready for service. This testing will take about 4 to 6 months to complete. Finally, just before the line opens, several weeks of pre-revenue testing will take place, with trains running their final schedules, but not carrying passengers. Oh, how frustrating that will be! But it will also signal that only a few weeks of waiting remain before we can all ride the new line.

Connecting bus service – Metro Transit recently released a nearly final plan for improved bus service that will connect with Green Line stations. On October 10th, Metro Transit will host an open house to answer questions about this revised service plan. The Metropolitan Council is expected to approve the plan this November after which staff will undertake the process of writing the detailed schedules route by route and trip by trip. The new schedules will take effect at the same time that Green Line services starts up in 2014.


Bus and light rail schedules will need to be carefully coordinated before the Green Line opens to ensure passengers can transfer easily to get where they’re going.


The amount of work required to get this new line up and running may seem daunting, but we expect crews will continue to make excellent progress as the Central Corridor light rail project moves forward. In the meantime, we will eagerly await the opportunity to hop aboard in 2014!


Thank you to the Central Corridor Project Office for contributing to this article. Specific thanks to Robin Caufman, John Levin, and Ted Axt. All featured images are courtesy of the Metropolitan Council.



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