ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When construction began on the Hiawatha Light Rail in 2001, it was not immediately embraced by the business community.
Although most of cost of the project was federally funded, the price per mile raised many eyebrows in a time when traditional roads and bridges appeared to be under funded.
And that sentiment fueled much of the initial resistance to the next light rail link, the Central Corridor line that will eventually link downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis.
But the top business organizations in the Metropolitan Twin Cities area are now firmly supporting expansion of the light rail as part of an interconnected multi-modal transportation system.
Executives from the three largest chambers of commerce told lawmakers Wednesday they endorse building out the transit system, including the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line which will run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
"This is not a case of let's keep up with the Joneses," Todd Klingel, the president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce remarked.
"This is a case of let's remain relevant in the decades ahead."
Klingel testified at a meeting of the House Transportation Committee, which is reviewing funding options in light of a new report by the Transportation Finance Advisory Committee.
That panel looked ahead 20 years and predicted a substantial funding gap, in difference between what current revenues will bring in and what will be needed to maintain and expand the transportation system as the population grows and the existing infrastructure ages.
"We can't afford NOT to make these investments," Klingel said.
"Call it what you want, but we need to make these investments to remain competitive. Period."
Governor Dayton has proposed an additional one-fourth of one percent sales tax for fund mass transit in the seven major metro counties.
Klingel and other chamber of commerce executives who joined him did not take a stand on that particular tax increase, saying they prefer to see how it will work in the context of Dayton's proposed sales tax overhaul.
But they did ask lawmakers to make sure that transit is treated as a priority as they move forward and craft spending bills. They assert it's not a competition for dollars as much as a way to strategically plan for systems that will compliment each other.
"The Chamber is very supportive of multi-modal transportation solutions," Judy Johnson, a Plymouth City Council member who is director of government affairs for the TwinWest Chamber, told legislators.
"We love roads, we love bridges, we love buses, we love opt-out bus systems, and we support light rail transit."
Johnson said the one role rail can play in suburban areas is relieving congestion now handled by buses. She said that would free up some of the buses to provide suburb-to-suburb routes currently in demand.
Both Johnson and Klingel said employers have come to view the commuter buses and transit lines are vital to maintaining a work force.
"Transit gets people to work," Klingel said.
"Eighty percent of the people who are currently on the transit system are going to work, or they are a future workers because they are going to school. "
He said businesses are competing head-to-head for skilled younger workers, the generation known as the Millennials. They are very attracted to the idea of letting someone else do the driving so they can use mobile devices to get a head start on the work day.
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