The automobile continues to be a major mode of transportation and will be the primary mode of choice for many residents who live in rural parts of the County. This system will be relied on heavily by the rural community to access resources and services for the foreseeable future. Other transportation systems that play an important role to our economy and quality of life include freight, rail, and air. Long-term planning for these systems are done at all levels of government (federal, state, county and local) and through private entities. Stearns County’s long-term transportation goals and needs are articulated in a separated document, which is known as the Stearns County 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP).
Other considerations will need to include multimodal options for commuters. Many residents are traveling greater distances to reach their jobs (rural to urban). Over 17%1 of the population travels more than 50 miles to reach their job. Expanding local and regional transit options (e.g., Northstar Commuter Rail) will need to be an ongoing effort.
Access & Maintenance: While most people may experience relatively good mobility around the County today, that may not always be true in the future without proper care for the County’s existing transportation assets and multi-modal investments. The LRTP lays out a variety of financing mechanisms to ensure that Stearns County’s maintenance practices don’t fall behind industry roadway standards. Beyond maintenance, proper care also requires careful planning for future access onto the county roadway system (i.e., access management). The mobility of a roadway today can drastically change with future haphazard placement of access points to the roadway. The County is dedicated to planning for and maintaining proper access according to the MnDOTaccess management manual guidelines and best practices.
Aging in Place: Stearns County will need to take into consideration the aging population and their ability to access places they need to go, such as residential areas, churches, health care facilities, employment opportunities (as we anticipate the age of those still seeking employment will continue to rise), grocery stores, and drug stores. The majority of these facilities are typically located in the urbanized areas. Thus, older people living in rural areas may have more difficulty accessing certain facilities and services because of their location and further distance from the urban centers. The County should plan for different types of transportation systems, such as dial-a-ride, which provides economical transportation options for the community.
Autonomous Vehicles: Technological advancements are always making new things possible and potentially more affordable than in the past. Transformations in how Stearns County residents get around are actively shaping the future of the county. It will be important for Stearns County to keep up with the fast paced tech world and recognize the positive and negative impacts it can have on the transportation system. While the timing of mass adoption of autonomous vehicles (AV) is unknown, they will dramatically shape how people will get around. This plan does not address these anticipated changes given its unknowns. Instead, it continues to emphasize the importance of multimodal options over the personal vehicles. Stearns County should continue to monitor the changes in transportation technologies.
Emergency Services: A reliable transportation network is critical to the response times for emergency services (e.g., police, fire and medical). In fact, research has suggested people, who needed emergency medical attention and lived further away from a hospital, had an increased likelihood of mortality compared to those who lived closer to a hospital (source: Journal of American Medical Association – July 2019). If residential development increases in the more rural areas of Stearns County, emergency service response times can lengthen due to distance and congestion on rural roads. While this issue has not yet been identified as a current problem, it should be considered as part of the review of proposed residential subdivisions.
Farm-to-Market: Transporting the goods produced by Stearns County farmers to local and regional markets and vice-versa is essential to the economic vitality of the county. Farmers depend on a reliable transportation network that can supports the movement of goods. Farm-to-market routes should be able to handle larger equipment sizes and weights, which can add stress to the county road. Maintaining a freight network to transport goods (e.g., crops, livestock, and aggregate) will be an ongoing priority for the County’s economic viability. The 2040 LRTP provides a framework for the County’s ten-ton network and freight priorities.
Rail, Freight, and Air: Retailers in general have been impacted by the rise of online commerce, competing markets and behavioral change. In fact, online retail (eCommerce) now constitutes a larger share of shopping in the United States. A strong presence of online retail and day-to-day deliveries have become increasingly more important to the national economy. This phenomenon is also reflected at a regional level throughout the St. Cloud metropolitan area and the County’s proximity to the Twins Cities. The demands of customers to receive seemingly any product of their choosing within a moment’s notice. This trend will continue to increase air, rail and freight traffic. It is imperative that these trends be accounted for and planned for accordingly to maintain the viability of our transportation systems, while meeting expectation of the consumer and business community.