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Met Council chair checks in with county officials

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Met Council chair checks in with county officials
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

Initiatives on transit, wastewater treatment, parks and transportation plans are underway, and a review of comprehensive plans are on the docket for Metropolitan Council planning.

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Peter Bell, chair of the council which oversees regional planning and metropolitan systems such as transit and wastewater treatment, reported to Washington County officials invited to a gathering at the county service center in Forest Lake Thursday, June 19.

An item uppermost on the minds of the city and county officials in the room are the comprehensive plans of their cities and townships which are required by the council to be written by the end of the year. There were some questions on that topic.

Beyond that, Bell talked primarily about transportation and transit. For transit, the region is focusing on the commuter rail line from St. Cloud to Minneapolis, bus rapid transit programs and the Central Corridor, a light-rail line in the planning to connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But there is also a healthy park-and-ride system in the suburbs that Bell said continues to grow. "Never was it more true 'build it and they will come'" than when it comes to those lots. That system is feeding into a transit system that is growing toward 80 million rides each year.

The council is also updating its transportation plan, which will include public comment. "That doesn't mean everyone's needs can be met, but it does mean that everyone's voices can be heard," Bell said.

The transportation plan includes two north-south bus rapid transit systems in Dakota County, which are in the planning stages.

Bell told the group that the council hopes to initiate a foundation that will gather private funds to help fund regional park acquisition.

"Clearly, our parks are the crown jewel of our region," he said, and it is the council's hope to increase regional parkland from 53,000 acres to 70,000 acres to keep pace with the projected population increase of one million more residents by 2030.

Parks are a major amenity to the region, he said, "and of course, once the land is gone, it is gone."

The council, which oversees the Metropolitan Transit system, is working to "go green" by purchasing hybrid buses, adding 150 new buses in the next two years to the 54 it already has. In addition, it is in a partnership with the University of Minnesota to explore the possibility of creating a bio fuel from algae, which is a major byproduct of the council's wastewater treatment facilities.

Affordable housing is another area in which the council works, Bell said. Currently, the council is working on a program that would provide $4 million to $6 million to cities to purchase land now when prices are lower, and then sell it later.

Any appreciation in the price would be used to help pay down the costs of new development and thus encourage developers to include more affordable housing in their plans.

In answer to an audience question, Bell said the same program could be used for redevelopment projects.

Many questions from the audience focused on providing more transit opportunities for the area, and Bell acknowledged that much of the transit funding and programs have not been in the eastern metro area. "I'm very sensitive to a east-metro, west-metro balance," he said.

It is unlikely that light rail will find its way any time soon to the east metropolitan area, Bell said. "The indispensable ingredient for transit is [population] density," Bell said, beyond what the east metro has to offer. Bus rapid transit is a much more likely possibility for the area, he said.

The funds that will be raised by the quarter-cent sales tax that Washington County, along with four other counties in the metropolitan area, chose to impose on itself for transit will be a benefit to the entire metropolitan area, Bell said, but it will be necessary to seek a balance of projects across the region.

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