If you're like the average Twin Cites area resident, you'll spend about 37 hours this year sitting in an automobile idling in a traffic jam. During the 1990s, only one city - Atlanta - saw traffic congestion grow faster. What's more, projections show the Twin Cities' population will keep growing over the next 30 years, putting more pressure on an aging road system that's already getting crowded to capacity. With transit options limited, getting around the Twin Cites is becoming a bigger and more expensive problem for those who live, do business in, or visit the area.
On most mornings it's still dark when Jon Jacobs accelerates onto Interstate 94 from exit number two in Hudson, Wisconsin. If he gets on the road by 5:30 or so, he can beat most of the traffic, and the 45-mile drive to his job in Plymouth will pass in less than an hour.
On the very worst days - when there's heavy rain, for example, or a big accident - the trip can take two hours. Jacobs moved from Minneapolis to Hudson in 1985, soon after his daughter was born. His commute was only 28 miles then, but he's changed jobs since. Then a few years ago the printing shop he works for moved from Minnetonka to Plymouth.
"I keep saying one more move and I've got to move. This is sort of the maximum distance that I'm willing to work with," says Jacobs.
But Jacobs likes where he works and loves where he lives, so he's willing to pay the price of a couple of hours on the road each day.
He's not the only one.
More people are driving farther and more often and their vehicles are taking a toll on Twin Cities roads.
Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg says most of the area's highways were built in the 1960s and '70's. Since then many have been patched with overlays. But now, Tinklenberg says, the roads need major work.
"You come to the point where you simply have to go in and reconstruct. And that's where we are on much of our freeway system. There are hard times ahead in terms of construction," according to Tinklenberg.
"They think they're progressive and I basically think they're dumb - people that are in the metropolitan area that think they can move traffic around. "
- Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna
Tinklenberg says maintaining the region's existing roads will consume more of the transportation department's budget in the future. But maintaining existing roads will hardly begin to meet the needs of the future.
Projections suggest 900,000 more people will move to the Twin Cities over the next 30 years. Most of them will drive cars. Many will discover those traffic-clogged areas known to commuters, like Jon Jacobs, as bottlenecks.
"Because we're out here fairly early, there won't be too many," he pointed out on a recent commute. "There'll be a minor one in downtown St. Paul where 35E goes off to the south. Then it might get a little bit congested around the Lowry Hill Tunnel again, simply because there are exit-only lanes."
Commuters aren't the only ones who know where the bottlenecks are. Planners and policy makers do too.
Ted Mondale, who chairs the Metropolitan Council, says the problem is not finding the trouble spots. It's finding the money to redesign and rebuild them. "We have 30 major bottlenecks identified in the metro area," says Mondale. "We have funding for 12 of them. Why don't we fix all 30? I think most Twin Citians would say 'Let's do it. Let's fix it.' It's really an issue where I think most politicians are behind the public."
The problem is money.
The money for Minnesota's roads comes from a few sources: the federal government, license tab fees, the state gas tax, and the state's general fund. Each of those sources pays for less than it used to - or soon will.
Two years ago Gov. Jesse Ventura won a fight to substantially reduce license tab fees. President Bush's budget proposal for next year reduces federal transportation aid to Minnesota by 25 percent. And Minnesota's gas tax has been steady at 20-cents a gallon for 14 years, while the cost of road building has risen twice as fast as inflation.
Tinklenberg says Minnesota's reluctance to spend more on roads contributes to surging construction costs by reducing competition. Contractors who specialize in highways have been moving their operations to other states with more road projects. Tinklenberg says Twin Cities projects now generate bids from three or four contractors rather than the seven or eight in years past.
By the time the sun comes up behind him, Jon Jacobs has more company on the Twin Cities beltway. "It's just about impossible to maintain a respectable interval between you and the car ahead of you. Because as soon as you back off far enough to do that, someone fills that space. I don't know if people have been watching too much NASCAR racing on television or what," Jacobs says.
"It's just about impossible to maintain a respectable interval between you and the car ahead of you. Because as soon as you back off far enough to do that, someone fills that space. I don't know if people have been watching too much NASCAR racing on television or what."
- Jon Jacobs
Funding a public transit project is even more challenging than paying for a new road. Minnesota lumps its highway money into a single fund and lets the transportation department decide how to spend it. But there is no dedicated source of money for transit. Instead, backers of a transit project must ask the Legislature for a special appropriation.
The process means projects like light-rail transit and the Northstar commuter rail line get scrutinized amid the political sparring of a legislative session. The familiar standoff at the Capitol has urban lawmakers seeking transit funds while their rural and suburban counterparts prefer road improvements.
The recurring stalemate has become something of a feud. Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, the Senate minority leader, opposes spending for rail transit. He's also criticized such traffic management tools as meters on highway entry ramps and HOV lanes reserved for carpools or high occupancy vehicles.
"We have a bunch of real - they think they're progressive and I basically think they're dumb - people that are in the metropolitan area that think they can move traffic around. And we're proving that they're wrong at every turn. They take studies; they keep on doing it, it doesn't make any difference," says Day.
Met Council Chair Ted Mondale says Day and other critics are oversimplifying traffic problems. "Visually, there are those, like Sen. Day, who say 'I'm looking at those HOV lanes and they don't work.' When you actually study them, they're carrying half the traffic on 394," according to Mondale.
The political wrangling seems to roll on under its own momentum. A little like Jon Jacobs' car.
"The actual process of the driving doesn't bother me," Jacobs says. "Traffic's traffic. I seldom get terribly frustrated by it."
More money and political consensus are not the only paths to transportation improvements. Tinklenberg says streamlining the planning and regulatory process for building roads would help. He says the average highway project takes 10 years to complete, with 20 percent of the costs incurred before any dirt is moved.
Tinklenberg thinks the state should reconsider its policy of municipal consent, under which any community affected by a road project has the power to delay construction indefinitely until its concerns are resolved.
"We're not trying to eliminate municipal review and municipal involvement in these kinds of projects. We just think there should be some kind of time limit, that you should have to make a decision so we can either change it or move on within a reasonable time frame," says Tinklenberg.
Answers to traffic congestion also lie in urban planning and land use decisions. Banking executive Jon Campbell of Wells Fargo, one of many Twin Cities business leaders calling for transportation improvements, says putting housing, jobs, and services closer together would make getting around easier.
"We need to make sure that we're developing our communities along major transportation corridors. And that a community has most of the things it needs to be successful so you don't have to go so far away," Campbell says.
Transportation officials say the 1990s saw a 64-percent increase in the number of commuters who travel 45 minutes each way, which is about 10 minutes less than it took Jon Jacobs on this day to get from his home in Hudson to his print shop in Plymouth.