Southwest LRT image by KARE
SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- It's not uncommon to see Chamber of Commerce leaders at the State Capitol, but their cause this legislative session is catching some by surprise.
They promoting the Southwest Light Rail, more specifically $25 million in bonding for the line that would connect downtown Minneapolis to St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Shakopee. That's only part of the projected $125 million price tag, but an important piece to a financing plan that would leverage federal dollars.
"The Met Council's own figures show that 80-plus percent of all riders of the metropolitan transit system, whether it be bus, light rail, or north star are either going to or from their place of employment, or they're going to or from school," Matt Kramer, president of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce told reporters Tuesday.
Kramer's organization teamed up with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber and the TwinWest Chamber to commission a study of transit opinions. The business groups intentionally picked two pollsters, one considered more conservative and the other more liberal, to conduct the polls.
They found that 76 percent of Minnesotans polled agree the state would benefit from expanded public transportation. The same poll showed that 69 percent would like to use public transportation more often.
"Sometimes we hear about people who are not taking transit," Todd Klingel of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber remarked. "But we found that the majority would take transit if transit were available to them, and that came out of this poll."
On the Southwest line specifically, 61 percent of those polled statewide supported state spending on the project. In the metro area 64 percent agreed with that idea. Support was strongest in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.
"This project will create 3,500 hundred jobs for just the construction," Klingel predicted. "But we anticipate 60,000 jobs along the Southwest corridor."
Republican leaders in the legislature, including the heads of the transportation committees, aren't convinced it's a wise investment of resources at this point in time.
Most Republican lawmakers prefer to use bonding for upkeep of existing infrastructure, rather than expansion. That's consistent with a philosophy that future taxpayers should not be on the hook for large projects.
The existing Hiawatha Light Rail line did not enjoy much Republican support, and the GOP lawmakers tried strip funding from Central Corridor Line currently under construction in Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
In discussions with skeptics the Chambers of Commerce are framing the issue as an investment that will promote job growth and business expansion throughout the Twin Cities.
They've also tried to sell it as smart money, saying the state's investment will be matched on a 9-to-1 ratio with federal and local funds.
"There's a very practical nature to business leaders today, and it's really not about politics," TwinWest president Bruce Nustad asserted.
"It's about practicality, and we happen to be coming out of a very tough economic time. And I think people are starting to realize the tools and the things they need, aside from politics."
The federal match typically isn't a strong selling point with Republican legislators, who often point out that the federal government is saddled with record levels of debt which Minnesotans and their descendants will have to repay eventually.
But Saint Paul's Kramer, a former Pawlenty cabinet member, said the region is in jeopardy of falling behind competitors. He said traditional paved highways will not be able to keep pace with the job growth anticipated in the southwest corner of the metro.
"The challenge I would leave for anybody who says, 'Boy, is transit really an option?' is to look around not just north America -- not just the western hemisphere, but this planet --and find a community of three million people that's as lacking in multi-modal transit options as the Twin Cities."
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