“The Next 50 Years: Choosing Innovation”

Text of the speech as prepared for delivery by Metropolitan Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff for the Council’s 50th Anniversary Celebration on 1/25/2018.
Good afternoon everyone!  Thank you, Governor Dayton, for that warm introduction, your leadership and this extraordinary opportunity to serve the people of the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
I’d also like to thank you all for being here.  We are here today to celebrate the accomplishments and partnerships we have built together with the Metropolitan Council over the past 50 years.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with why the Council was created in 1967:
  • Sewage was polluting our lakes and rivers.
  • Suburban development was gobbling up open space.
  • We had a booming population with no real roadmap for where infrastructure and development should be built.
But the civic wisdom behind a regional approach didn’t materialize from these problems.
It came from Major League Baseball.
An article from the 1960s in Harper’s Magazine detailed how both Minneapolis and Saint Paul wanted to get a major league baseball franchise. Each city put in its own bid, and because they competed with each other – both lost.
“To their chagrin,” the author wrote, “they realized that they could not get or support a big-league team in baseball – or football or hockey – unless they operated it jointly as a Twin Cities venture. Thus, on the sports pages appeared the first sprouts of civic wisdom.”
The role regionalism played in bringing the Twins to Minnesota is clear. In fact, that first Minnesota Twins logo depicted two baseball players, Minnie and Paul, reaching across the river, shaking hands.
Today, our region is home to not only the Minnesota Twins, but many big-league teams that contribute to our economy, our culture, our communities, and our quality of life.
Now, in just a few short days, the Twin Cities will host one of the largest sporting events on the planet: the Super Bowl – bringing tens of thousands of visitors to our region, and putting the Twin Cities on an international stage.
For years, partners across our region worked together to bid and plan for this event. Now, we are going to show the world what true regional partnerships can deliver. That’s what I want to talk about today – how the power of regional partnerships can propel us into a more prosperous future.

The choice

In 1967, our state’s leaders had a visionary idea: to create a body with the express mission of guiding the region’s growth. Ever since, the Met Council has used regional partnerships to tackle problems that were too big for any single city or county.
Working together we’ve built a prosperous region that families and businesses love.  
  • The Twin Cities has more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other region
  • We have 54 regional parks that attracted 48 million visits last year.  If I had to guess, I’d say - my kids and I are personally responsible for about a thousand of those visits. Because if you live someplace as beautiful as this, you would be wise to get out and enjoy it.
We also have one of the best transit systems in the nation. In 2016, Metro Transit was named Transit System of the Year. And 2017 was a record-breaking year.
Just this week, Metro Transit staff finalized our 2017 ridership numbers. And I’m excited to announce here today that our rail lines - the METRO Blue Line, the METRO Green Line, and Northstar – broke all-time ridership records.  Ridership on both the Green and Blue Lines were up by nearly 4 percent, and Northstar was up a whopping 11.6%. Altogether, these three transit lines provided 24.6 million rides last year - helping Minnesotans get to school, work, and home across our region.
Congratulations and thank you to all of our Metro Transit employees who play a role in providing a service that people across this region use in record numbers.
When it comes to pursuing excellence, our Metro Transit employees have a lot of company. Our employees in Parks, Community Development, Transportation, Environmental Services, Planning, and Housing are passionate, dedicated, and talented. And I’m reminded of their role daily in building a vibrant region.
Our region’s prosperity and high quality of life have been recognized by USA Today, Time Magazine and more online rankings than you can imagine. But our region is also known for being economically resilient. No one escaped the impacts of the Great Recession when the housing bubble burst in 2009. But for the Twin Cities region the fall wasn’t as far, and our recovery outpaced most of the nation.
We have a highly educated workforce, cultural venues, sports teams, beautiful parks. But one of the Met Council’s greatest achievements comes with an unglamorous title: Wastewater.
In 1926, our region received some sobering news about clean water. That year scientists did a survey of the Mississippi River downstream of Saint Paul. They found three fish. Not three species of fish – three fish. For years, wastewater pollution had poisoned our waters. It was a wakeup call for our region, and the Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant opened in 1938.
As the region grew, more than 30 small municipal treatment plants were built. But soon they became outsized and outmoded, leading to pollution of other waterways, like Lake Minnetonka.
In 1967, the Legislature gave the new Metropolitan Council planning authority and oversight of the new Sewer Board, with the goal of creating a regional wastewater system.
Today, we have 8 regional treatment plants and 610 miles of interceptor pipes that connect 109 communities.
The water we discharge is cleaner than the environment it’s released into. Our water rates are nearly 40 percent lower than our peer regions. And today, fish and other aquatic life have made a significant comeback in the Mississippi River. Despite other environmental challenges in the river, we can rest assured that our wastewater treatment efforts are contributing to a cleaner and healthier river.
Meanwhile, the Met Council is developing innovative ways to use treated wastewater for industry, or even recharging aquifers. Those new ideas are being explored in partnerships with communities and businesses across the region – and will contribute to even better environmental outcomes for our lakes, rivers and groundwater.  
I saw the flip side to our innovative approach when I visited Pittsburgh last year. Fifty years ago, when Pittsburgh was a booming industrial town, they didn’t take a regional approach to wastewater treatment. The result is shocking. Today, over nine billion gallons of untreated sewage is flowing into that region’s three major rivers, and the region is under a federal mandate to clean up its waterways.
Even if the Pittsburgh area can raise the $3.6 billion needed to do the job, fixing the problems will require agreements with 84 individual cities that all have separate wastewater treatment systems. There is no regional body in Pittsburgh to coordinate that effort. And it’s interesting to consider what our own region might be like, if not for the Met Council.
Over the past 50 years, our region has made wise choices and invested in long-term solutions. Because of it, the Twin Cities metropolitan region is strong and vibrant, and competitive in the global marketplace.
But we face a serious risk – one of complacency.
In 1967 the Met Council was a new, innovative idea.
But today, the needs of business and industry are changing, our population is growing and aging, and even our climate is changing.
We may not be facing a burning crisis. But we are facing a slow burn that could roll back the progress we’ve made, setting our region back while our peer regions in Denver, Seattle, and Portland charge forward.
We cannot allow that to happen. We need to meet our region’s challenges head-on. We need to partner together, listen to one another, and together address our region’s three most pressing challenges:
  • Safe, affordable housing;
  • Modern, efficient transit for a growing economy; and
  • Making our region a place where everyone has the opportunities they need to reach their full potential.
A strong focus on these key priorities will be essential in building a prosperous region, and attracting the people, businesses and workforce we need for an even brighter future.

Safe, affordable housing

Housing is a basic need, and one of the Met Council’s most important jobs is to help communities plan for their long-term housing needs.
This is where I confess that I’m not a native Minnesotan. Instead, I grew up in a nice suburban township in South Jersey where the quality of life is high and the schools are good. Just 30 minutes outside Philadelphia.
Sadly, my hometown is infamous for its creation of exclusionary housing policies. In the 70s, our mayor became known for saying, “if you can’t afford to live here, you’ll have to leave.”
This sentiment was shared by many members of the community who were worried that creating affordable housing would destroy the public school system and lead the community into decline.
Mount Laurel didn’t choose to be inclusive, or to plan for a changing future. Community leaders had to be dragged into the courts kicking and screaming into a future that included everyone.
Today, Mount Laurel has affordable housing and good schools. Even though Mount Laurel is a great community to live in, we will never know how much better it would have been, had city leaders taken the energy they spent fighting affordable housing, and expended it on building an even better community for everyone.
Simply put, people should be able to choose where they live, no matter their income. Stable, affordable housing is critical for people to be able to work productively, for their children to learn, and for families and communities to thrive.
But right now, the need for affordable housing is outpacing supply. Over ten years ago, we told cities in our region that we would need another 52,000 affordable housing units over the current decade just to keep up with household growth. But we’ve only created less than a quarter of that.
And it’s not just a question of affordable housing. Vacancy rates in all types of housing are very low, lower than even booming cities like Seattle, Denver and Portland. People who can afford to buy homes find themselves in bidding wars. This causes all home prices to go up. Meanwhile, rental rates are skyrocketing as well.
Everyone is affected by rising prices: growing families, aging people looking to downsize, young workers who want to relocate here, businesses trying to recruit talent.
Since 2000, the number of households spending more than half of their incomes to pay for housing has gone up by 77 percent. The more money Minnesotans spend on their housing, the less money they have available for food, for transportation, for health care, and other critical expenses. This is unsustainable.
Mike Webb, the Mayor of Carver really gets that. He owns a coffee shop, and on a recent visit, he said, “It just seems reasonable to me that the people who work in my coffee shop should be able to live in this community as well.”
He fought hard for an affordable housing development on the western end of town. But unlike the mayor from my hometown, Mayor Webb understands that a vibrant community with a strong economy includes people from all walks of life.
That’s the beauty of this region – we want to make it possible for all families to thrive here. It’s why so many people want to live here. So we can’t be complacent about this affordable housing shortage.

Since 1996, the Council has been part of the solution – providing more than $300 million in Livable Communities grants that have helped create or preserve 21,000 units of affordable housing. This is great progress, but the Council cannot address these challenges alone.
Fortunately, we have partners and leaders like all of you - across our region who see affordable housing as a top policy issue and are just as committed as we are to finding solutions.
One of those leaders – Governor Mark Dayton – is here today.
I want to thank the Governor for his leadership and for creating a new Task Force on Housing that will tackle many of our region's housing challenges head on – we, at the Met Council, look forward to supporting that effort in any way we can.

A modern, affordable transit system

Having quality, affordable housing is only part of the equation for a stronger, more prosperous region. We also need a modern and efficient transit system to support a growing economy.
Transit in our region provides almost 100 million rides a year. The vast majority of those rides are people who are either going to work or school.
It’s no surprise then, that every business organization tells me that transit is necessary to continue building a strong, economically competitive region. They are competing to attract younger, highly skilled workers and their future success depends on it. Market research shows us that this group of people not only prefers transit, but is more likely to relocate to a region with a high quality transit system.
The fact is, we have hit a point of diminishing returns when it comes to expanding our road system and freeways. But transit gives us more bang for our buck.
Just look at the A Line, which went into service last year on Snelling Avenue and Ford Parkway. This new rapid bus line, with WiFi on high-tech buses, and heated shelters tracking arrival and departures in real time, has increased all transit ridership along its route by about 33 percent.
The need for innovation and investment in our transit system is growing. By 2040 our region will add another 700,000 people. That’s the equivalent of almost the entire population of North Dakota moving here – to the metro area. With that increase in population, we expect to see the demand for transit increase by 80 percent.
But it’s not only new residents who are driving demand for transit. As our population ages, the need for Metro Mobility is increasing. And the business community makes its case again and again for increased investment in transit – saying it is essential for their success in attracting a competitive workforce
The Met Council worked with partners on this issue, including City councilors and mayors, county commissioners, neighborhood groups, car drivers and transit users to develop a comprehensive plan to build out our transit system to meet the needs of future growth in the region.
Our analysis concluded that in addition to new light rail transit lines, our region needs 17 new rapid bus routes, 46 new local bus lines and significant upgrades to 76 existing local bus routes just to meet the basic needs of the increased ridership we expect to see.  We have a plan to build out the system.
But there’s one catch. We don’t have the funding to implement that plan. While the demands on our system are growing, our funding is unreliable and stagnant, at best.  
Legislators provided some one-time funding last year, which helped patch a hole. But in 2020 and 2021, we’re facing a funding shortfall for Metro Transit of over 100 million dollars.
That kind of deficit will not drive our region forward. It will throw our progress into reverse.
To meet the needs of the future, the legislators of today will have to act like their counterparts of a half century ago and commit to investing in innovation and growth, not just for the next two-year state budget cycle, but for the next two or three decades.
Governor Dayton’s bonding proposal makes an essential $50 million investment in our region’s transit network – specifically bus rapid transit, like those made on the A line I just described.
Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, as it’s called, is a proven solution to enhancing transit service along our busiest local bus corridors. This funding could support the development and construction of many new BRT lines, including the D Line from Richfield to Brooklyn Center. All told, the investment would connect hundreds of thousands of people with jobs all across the region.
These are the types of investments we need to build a more prosperous region. It’s no wonder that cities like Seattle, Denver and Houston are investing heavily in all modes of transit – it is stimulating their economies. And we’re going to lose our competitive advantage unless we do the same. 

A place of opportunity for all

Housing and transit are critical regional infrastructure, essential to our ability to build a prosperous region. They are tangible to everyone and challenges that will require the Council’s sustained attention in the coming decades. But the third area I want to address is less tangible. It brings together all of the work of the Council, whether it’s housing, transportation, land use planning, or even creating and maintaining our regional park system. All of the work we do can be summed up in one word:
Over the past 50 years, the Council’s purpose has been to ensure that everyone in our region has the opportunity to live and work where they choose. Those choices create the opportunities our people need to reach their full potential.
Our business community constantly strives to retain the best young talent being trained in our state’s excellent education system, and to attract bright new talent from around the globe.
If we want to continue creating choices for people and business, and attracting talent from around the globe, we need to address a huge problem – equity.
I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the demographic make-up of the talent base is changing. Today, 26 percent of the people in our region are people of color. By 2040, nearly 40 percent of our residents will be people of color.
But our region is not providing opportunity to everyone. Among our peer regions, the Twin Cities ranks worst when it comes to the disparity between white people and people of color who own homes, hold jobs and live above the poverty line. We’re dead last.
This is unacceptable. As Minnesotans, we believe in building a fair and just society, where every child has the chance to achieve their potential.
This isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do. In a global economy, where companies like 3M, Medtronic, Target and United Health are built with intellectual talent, we simply can’t afford to leave 40 percent of the population out of the pipeline.
If we are truly a place of opportunity for everyone, then people and businesses will choose to live here, to invest here, and to make their homes here.
Site selectors don’t make it a secret of what types of things they need for a strong business climate. Apple announced last week that it will build a second major campus somewhere in the United States, employing an estimated 20,000 workers. They are not publishing their list of location criteria or inviting applications. But, we can make some pretty educated guesses about what they’re looking for: a modern transit network, affordable housing, a high quality of life and an educated, diverse and highly productive workforce.
Those are the ingredients for a successful business environment.
Our region has those things. That’s why we have so many Fortune 500 corporate headquarters and growing businesses here. But we need to do even better – much better, in fact – if we hope to attract major employers and thousands of new jobs to the Twin Cities.
But it’s not just the new potential corporate campuses we are looking to gain; a strong regional approach is essential for creating a better business environment for the employers that are already here – our homegrown businesses – and the many hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans they employ.

Choosing to innovate

Our businesses, our communities, and our families deserve and expect that we will make choices in the years ahead to secure a more prosperous future for the Twin Cities. And we should expect nothing less from ourselves as leaders of this region.
Now, we must choose how we address the challenges of our future.  
15 years from now, let’s imagine a region where we are again leading the nation in our ability to come together as the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region to address our shared challenges. A region where our residents can find an affordable place to live. A region where we are investing in our shared mobility – through transit, across all modes; not just buses, but also trains.
Let’s imagine a region where we double down on our investment to protect and preserve our natural resources through our regional parks. And let’s imagine we continue to top the charts as the best place to call home and raise a family.
But we do not have to rely on our imaginations alone. We can accomplish all of this and more if we make the conscious choice to invest in the entire region.
No single city, county, business or individual can make these choices on their own. The generation that created the Council understood this. And they made a deliberate choice to play the long-game.
To continue innovating, someone needs to look at the region’s long-term needs, and build the partnerships to meet those challenges. State law gives that job to the Council. It’s an awesome responsibility and a labor of love. It’s frustrating and rewarding to work with dozens of partners, with hundreds of points of view. But the investment is worth it – because we are building a stronger region together.
I’m proud and excited to be part of that work and I ask each of you to join me as we embark – together - on the next 50 years of innovation.
Thank you.