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A Transportation Future for Washington County

October 22, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
In Washington County, some farsighted citizens are looking to a barely glimpsed future when fewer than 14 out of every 15 trips to work are in a private motor vehicle.

That's the latest census data for this wealthy, fast-growing east metro area where the car is king, roads and bridges are well maintained and a transit tax is the hottest election issue this fall. Some candidates for the county board complain that the current commissioners unwisely opted into a quarter-cent general sales tax for Twin Cities rapid bus and rail development -- and then got shortchanged when it came to dividing the revenue with more transit-rich counties to the west.

A commuter bus service from Forest Lake got Washington County's only original slice of the five-county sales tax pot, equal to about one-quarter of the county's contributions. Other counties that have heavily invested property taxes in rail transit initiatives -- something Washington County hasn't done yet -- fared much better.

Only 1.3 percent of Washington County commuters used transit in 2000, according to the U.S. Census, while 93.3 percent drove; walking and working at home accounted for the rest. Getting to work by bus from the county's mix of second- and third-ring suburbs, semirural expanses and pioneer cities along the St. Croix River took an average of 47 minutes, nearly double the median commute by car.

In an energy-challenged future, that probably won't be good enough to keep Washington County high on many folks' lists of desirable places to make a home.

What to do?  At a recent public forum in Stillwater titled "Transportation Sustainability: It Starts With Us," attendees listened to experts ranging from the county engineer to this writer, and then brainstormed with their neighbors for some solutions. Here's a sampling:

  • Build local support for rapid transit along Interstate Hwy. 94 from Hudson to St. Paul and for more bus stops and park-and-ride lots on the way.
  • New funding for transportation - perhaps a sales tax -- to replace the gasoline tax's declining revenues, which are dedicated to roads alone.
  • Change the conversation about taxes from a drain on citizens' pocketbooks to investment in vital public infrastructure.
  • Mount a public relations campaign to demonstrate the true cost of failure to invest in transit and other transportation assets.
  • Advocate park and ride options.
About 50 people joined these deliberations, sponsored by River Valley Action and other civic groups. They also agreed that the message of 21st century transportation options must be delivered to a broader slice of the Washington County public, possibly at future forums under sponsorship of the county's mayors. "We're preaching to the choir now," said one participant.

Within the next decade, Washington County will benefit from a new freeway-style St. Croix River bridge at Stillwater to be built by the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of transportation. This will greatly alter traffic patterns and congestion in the county.

It's up to this 160-year-old county's citizens and their leaders to design and finance an appropriate mix of transit and highway infrastructure that will serve it well for the next 160 years.

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