Minnesota highway projects will need to consider climate impacts in planning

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The recent expansion of a groundbreaking transportation law in Minnesota means all major highway projects in the state will soon be scrutinized for their impact on climate emissions.

A year ago, the state legislature made headlines with a new law requiring the state transportation department and the Twin Cities’ regional planning agency to begin assessing whether highway expansion projects are consistent with state climate goals, including Minnesota’s aim for 20% reduction in driving by 2050.

A follow-up bill passed this spring expands the 2023 law to include all major highway projects statewide that exceed a $15 million budget in the Twin Cities or $5 million outside the metro, regardless of whether or not they would add new driving lanes. The updated legislation also established a technical advisory committee and a state fund to recommend and help pay for mitigation projects.

“It allows for some evolution of the law,” said Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move Minnesota, a nonprofit advocacy group that supported the legislation. “There’s more flexibility.”

The law requires transportation project planners to offset projected increases in greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled to qualify for state or federal highway dollars. Those mitigation efforts might include incorporating funding for transit, bicycle or pedestrian programs or environmental restoration projects.

‘A waterfall effect’

Altogether, the law will now cover more than 12,000 miles of state trunk highways that account for more than 60% of all miles driven in the state. One high-profile project that may not have been covered under the initial law is the upcoming reconstruction of Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, which will now need to account for climate impacts.

The changes come as advocates and officials seek solutions to reverse the continued growth of transportation emissions, which surpassed electricity generation almost a decade ago as the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and are a major reason why Minnesota is not on track to meet its climate goals. 

A disconnect has long existed between even progressive states’ climate goals and the status quo of highway construction, which has long focused on maximizing efficiency for drivers. The new Minnesota law is an attempt to integrate climate action into state and local transportation planning, and to recognize that electric vehicles alone won’t be enough to achieve climate targets. 

Under the law, the Twin Cities’ regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Council, must include strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles driven in its next 25-year regional plan in 2026. All metro area communities will then use that plan as the basis for their local comprehensive plans, which are due to the regional council in 2028. 

“It’s a waterfall effect here,” Rockwell said.

The Met Council’s last planning document, Thrive 2040, already outlined a focus on multimodal travel options, encouraging walking and biking options while setting a goal of decreasing vehicle miles traveled per capita by 20% by 2050, in line with the state’s official goal.

Conversations already underway

Many metro area communities are already having conversations about how to reduce dependency on driving. Abby Finis, a consultant who has helped several communities draft climate action plans, said reducing driving can bring broader benefits than simply focusing on electric vehicles.

“It offers more active lifestyles, more opportunities to incorporate nature, and has less impact on natural resources needed for electric vehicles,” she said.

Most communities focus on increasing the ability of residents to walk and bicycle for short trips by adding bike lanes, pedestrian islands and safer crosswalks, she said. Some cities see telecommuting and co-working spaces as options for reducing commutes.

But transforming the suburbs will be challenging, Finis said. Sustaining transit service often requires denser development, which continues to be politically controversial in many communities. 

“I have yet to see any community push hard on those strategies in a way that meets what is necessary to reduce [vehicle miles traveled] and adapt to climate change,” Finis said.

For example, Minnetonka, a western suburb of Minneapolis with more than 52,000 residents, boasts a considerable bicycling community. But transit ridership is low except for a modest ridership at the regional mall, one commercial development area, and park-and-ride lots, said Minnetonka’s Community Development Director Julie Wischnack.

Developed in the 1950s and 1960s, Minnetonka’s current land use is a barrier to fixed route transit. But the city is among a collection of suburbs along Interstate 494 that has been pushing for transit and other commuting options, including telework.

Another member of that commission, Bloomington, faces many of the same challenges. The city has a few dense neighborhoods near transit stops and the Mall of America, but much of the community remains single-family homes and small apartments. A recent report Bloomington commissioned on transportation found that 75% of trips by residents were more than 10 miles. 

Transit, biking, and other modes could replace trips that are less than 10 miles, said Bloomington Sustainability Coordinator Emma Struss. A recent city transportation study suggested several strategies to decrease driving, including transit-oriented development, free bus and rail passes, bike parking, subsidized e-bikes and more transit. Removing barriers to walking and biking were highlighted.

“We’re hearing more and more from residents that they want safe ways to get around the community without needing to take a car,” Struss said.

Similar challenges in larger cities

St. Paul has made changes to create denser neighborhoods, including removing parking minimums for new development and letting up-to-four-unit complexes be built in single-family neighborhoods. The biggest challenge continues to be the spread-out nature of the region, which forces people to drive to suburban jobs and big-box merchants. 

“The fundamental nature of those trips is hard to serve with anything but driving in the car,” said Russ Stark, St. Paul’s chief resilience officer.

Minneapolis has focused less on vehicle miles and more on “mode shift,” or decreasing trips, said the city’s Public Works Director Tim Sexton. The goal is to replace three of five trips by car with walking, biking, or other modes. A city transportation action plan features more than 100 strategies, including creating around 60 mobility hubs where residents can rent e-bikes, scooters or electric vehicles, or take transit.

Patrick Hanlon, the city’s deputy commissioner of sustainability, healthy homes and the environment, pointed out that Minneapolis has one of the country’s best-developed bike networks, which continues to grow. The city’s comprehensive plan drew national attention for removing barriers preventing denser development, which typically leads to fewer transportation emissions. Several transportation corridors now feature bus rapid transit lines.

What Finis described as a “patchwork” of conversations around developments like these are expected to become more comprehensive as the state law’s planning requirements take effect in the coming years.

The legislation has also made Minnesota a national inspiration for other states looking to make progressive changes to highway planning, Rockwell said.

“We know of a number of other states that are looking at trying to replicate parts of this (law), which is great,” he said. “We’ve been on the phone with folks from New York, Michigan, Illinois and Maryland who are trying to bring some pieces of this into their legislative sessions and their legal framework. That’s exciting.”

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