Transportation Secretary praises Minn. transit as model

10:29 PM, Sep 19, 2011   |    comments
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  • Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Saint Paul
  • Saint Paul's Union Depot September 2011

SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the Central Corridor light rail project as a model for the the nation during a visit to Minnesota Monday.

LaHood headlined a press conference outside the Saint Paul's historic Union Depot, which now being transformed into a regional hub for light rail transit cars, Amtrack, bus lines and future regional commuter rail lines.

"This is what we've always in America and we've done it in a bi-partisan way," LaHood told reporters and construction workers who paused briefly from their work to watch the event. 

"There are no Republican or Democratic bridges. There are no Republican or Democratic roads!"

LaHood addressed the press corp from across a trench which will be the bed for a section of the light rail. The 11-mile line will link that part of Lowertown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis,  taking in the State Capitol and the University of Minnesota campus along the way.

It's no accident that LaHood's visit to St. Paul coincides with a national debate on infrastructure investment, tied to President Obama's jobs plan.  Both the transit line and the depot use local, state and regional funds to leverage much larger amounts of federal grant money.

"Whether it's at Union Station or this transit line, these are American jobs for America's infrastructure," LaHood asserted. "This is a model for America right here!"

For many the Central Corridor Light Rail represents a a traffic headache. temporarily closing lanes in places they used to be able to drive.  It has also created angst for business owners along the route deprived of customers who don't want to deal with the added hassle.

But to those involved in the construction phase, those public works projects represent a paycheck in tough times.

"I was off work about a year ago for 10 months, so it's always good to be back to work," Pauly Heins, a union carpenter from Marine on St. Croix told KARE.

Heins is one of the carpenters working on the renovation of the Union Depot. He said he was more than a little bit annoyed when he saw a politician on television saying the public works jobs don't improve the economy in the long term.

"There are people that, for some reason, think unless you have some long-term career with one company you don't have a job," Heins remarked. "And it's like, NO, this is a real job for me!"

The projected price tag for the Central Corridor is $957 million dollars, and the Union Depot is estimated at $243 million, including $35 million in a Tiger grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus.

Republican members of Minnesota's congressional delegation have voted at times to strip funding from the transit lines, and GOP members of the Minnesota legislature have described it as old-fashioned 1800's transportation technology.

They argue the money should be used to pay down the national debt, or spent on highway projects that create more bang for the buck when it comes to congestion relief.

Defenders of the transit spending argue it's a smarter use of money over the long term, because it takes advantage of existing infrastructure in core areas of the Twin Cities.  Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat, said future population growth can't all be absorbed newer suburbs.

The light rail line in Saint Paul and the Hiawatha light rail in Minneapolis are both spurring private investment in businesses and housing along the routes.

"Investors know where people are going to be and they make that private investment," Sen. Dibble told KARE. "It really revitalizes what we already have, versus building roads way out into the cornfields and having to build all kinds of very expensive infrastructure."

That transit spending is also sparking private investments in areas along and near the route.

LaHood said one of the reasons the US Dept. of Transportation has looked so favorably on the Minnesota projects is the high level of cooperation and coordination between differnet levels of local government.

He said when Florida turned down federal transit money many other metro areas stepped up to ask for those funds. He compared the current investment in transit to the decision the past two generations made to build the interstate highway system.

"We are not going to be dissuaded by our critics," he said. "There are more people that support the idea of high speed rail, of transit, of street cars, of opportunities for people to get out of their cars."

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All rights reserved.)

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