New Hope for Public Works Leadership That Won’t Kneecap Transit

We never thought this day would come. The transportation needs of car-free, low-income and disabled residents has become a top concern. Everyone across the region is in a panic over what happens if we fail these people. Did you think we meant transit riders? Sorry, no, we meant the Uber and Lyft situation.

But rideshare aside, many of us really are hoping for city leadership that follows through on ambitious commitments to affordable, safe, sustainable transportation. And Minneapolis is about to get a new Public Works director. Timothy Sexton is certain to be confirmed at a City Council meeting this Thursday.

You can find reasons for optimism. Sexton’s resume includes a reassuring number of bullet points about climate and sustainable transportation.

Sexton struck the right notes at his public hearing last week: “We need to slow traffic down to prevent serious injuries and fatal crashes, especially with people walking and biking… If you look at who’s getting killed in these crashes, it’s disproportionately BIPOC residents and visitors to the city.”

Senator Scott Dibble vouched for Sexton as an ally in transforming the transportation status quo, as Dibble fought for historic investments in public transit last year. He described Sexton as not at all what you’d expect from someone who came over from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, an agency who sees its mission as moving cars ever faster with more and more lanes .

But before we move on to the next PW director, let’s look back at the disappointing recent history of Minneapolis Public Works when it comes to supporting public transit.

Around this time two years ago, Margaret Anderson Kelliher had likewise arrived from MnDOT as the city’s new PW director. Among her first actions was to reverse a staff recommendation — developed over years of planning and engagement — to include full time bus lanes on a newly reconstructed Hennepin Avenue South. There was remarkable agreement at the time among the city’s transportation planners, Metro Transit, a City Council majority, and the entire Minneapolis state legislative delegation: full time bus lanes would be necessary. To allow cars to park in those bus lanes for much of the day would pose a risk to the legislature’s substantial investment in high quality bus rapid transit.

Anderson Kelliher just waved away years of planning with a few words about the need for parking. To quote from a staff email acquired in a data request: MAK’s process at the time was just “wing it.”

The same thing has played out again this year on a different stretch of the future E Line BRT on Hennepin and 1st Aves in northeast Minneapolis. In the summer of 2022, the county recommended and approved full time bus lanes. The City Council approved that plan and Mayor Frey signed off. But in February of this year, the layout on the county’s project page was edited to reflect the lanes would spend half the day as parking. I’m told the county acceded to the city’s demands, against the preference and advice of Metro Transit staff.

Shifting the transportation status quo is difficult politics. But these should have been victories. I see a pattern of choices going against the data, against the analysis of professional staff, against the political consensus across multiple levels of government — all for reasons the public can only guess at. The city risks degrading the quality of a $60 million transit upgrade and teaching drivers it’s fine to park in red painted bus lanes, which makes them harder to enforce.

To quote Mayor Frey: “Not everyone has a car. Not everyone can drive. Not everyone is in the position to drive. We need to also to be thinking about them.”

Unfortunately, Frey didn’t say this about public transit. It was said in the context of a regional panic over whether a couple of large corporations with predatory business models will pull their rideshare apps from the city. They’d rather not comply with an ordinance requiring higher pay for their drivers.

Among the most vital functions of local government is allocating space on our streets. The results have implications for safety, health, equity, climate, access to jobs, and quality of life. With the city’s new strong mayor system, decisions on things like transit lanes are increasingly made behind closed doors, inside the mayor’s administration, shielded from public process.

Minneapolis is increasingly faced with how use our streets to support a slew of BRT projects. There’s also the question of what happens if buses are moved off Nicollet Mall. Recommitting Public Works to transparency and a data-driven process is more important than ever. I’d hate to think we stopped short of really attempting to hit our ambitious transportation mode shift goals because the wrong VIP complained about not being able to park at the front door of their hair salon.