Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read July 2021 —The Metropolitan Council is the regional policy-making body, planning agency, and provider of essential services for the Twin Cities metropolitan region. Its mission is to foster efficient economic growth for a prosperous region. Chair of the Council Charlie Zelle spoke with Invest: about the current lay of the land, addressing the budget impact of the pandemic and infrastructure improvements.
How are budgets affected this year?
Every local and state government has been deeply challenged because of excess costs and loss of revenues. For the Metropolitan Council, a lot of our revenue for our metro transit operations comes from fares. With ridership down as much as 50%, that is a significant loss. In addition, significant funding also comes from the motor vehicle sales tax. A year ago, we did not expect people to be buying cars but as it turned out, there was a recovery in sales. The major funding that restored deficits were the three tranches of federal stimulus packages. Those have provided not only recovery from the deficit but have also given us some additional funds to help cover unexpected events. The water system we operate is fee-based and this has been very well-capitalized. A lot of the grants we provide to the community and our housing authority work has seen much more demand. Although we have additional funds, we cannot really cover all those needs. We have a real scarcity of housing supply, which started in 2008 and I think this is endemic in many cities. We’ve had strong support for subsidized housing and workforce housing so there is now a lot of supply coming online. We want to keep this region affordable compared to our peers.
What can the metro area improve in infrastructure?
We are in the middle of constructing a Green Line extension, which is a $2 billion public works light-rail project. We had a federal funding agreement signed and committed last September. We are in the early stages of developing an alignment into some of the preliminary work for the Blue Line extension. The Gold Line extension (which is a rapid bus transit project, operating in its own dedicated guideway) is also in the engineering phase. The heart of building up transit is our ABRT system (arterial bus rapid transit), which operates in city streets and highways, and it’s very successful. We have two in service; we are building another two and our vision is to add another 10 beyond that. Even with the pandemic, we did not pause our work. We have actually leaned into building out the transit system.
How is the Met Council pushing for more sustainable practices?
Climate and sustainability are among the pillars of our organization. We support a lot of the municipalities and the council is a source of research and planning tools that communities can use on the subject, whether it is electrification for fleets or heat mapping. Our own climate work is aligned with the governor’s subcabinet on climate.
How has the Thrive MSP 2040 plan been affected by COVID?
Thrive MSP 2040 was developed 10 years ago. We are in the early stages of developing the next 30-year plan and building on that work. Thrive MSP focuses on equity, the planet, housing availability and transportation, and we are very much focusing on those goals. We are working with our 17-member council who have very diverse but aligned interests. One of the characteristics of the next 30-year period will be ensuring we have programs that are actionable as soon as possible because there is some urgency to these issues.
How is the Twin Cities changing as a business environment?
Our brand has been tarnished by the racial inequity issues that have arisen since last summer. This results from the wealth disparity between black and white families and individuals. We see this area as the one that can serve as the model with all of government working hand in hand to close those gaps. I don’t know of any organization that does not have that as its highest priority. Because it is embracing that, the business community is able to continue its retention and continue to attract new employees. The work that is being done now can gain greater traction among some of our larger employers. We have highly educated and civically minded business leaders. Our challenge is to ensure that attractiveness can bring new people into the area.
What does business travel look like for you in 2021?
Business travel will be the last to recover. I have learned that business is not just the Fortune 500 companies; there are a lot of smaller businesses in the area that are leading the way to travel recovery. Delta has a very large presence here and has put all but a few destinations back online, so they are seeing a faster recovery than anticipated. We will see business travel follow but it will not be the same. Virtual conferences and meetings can be more efficient.
What is your outlook for the next 18 months?
The Met Council plays a unique role as the regional economic planner and operator of infrastructure systems. As a governmental organization, we collaborate with private industry to reach a lot of our goals. In the next 18 months as the economy reawakens, the biggest challenges will be to ensure transit is fully recovering and to ensure people feel safe. We have expanded our housing vouchers for subsidized housing. As the eviction moratorium ends across the country, there will be more pressure on governments to ensure there is enough supply of affordable housing.
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