ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Whenconstruction began on theHiawatha Light Railin 2001,it was not immediatelyembraced by thebusiness community.
Although most of cost of the project was federally funded, theprice per mile raised manyeyebrows in a time when traditional roads and bridges appeared to be under funded.
And that sentimentfueled much of theinitialresistanceto the nextlight raillink, the Central Corridor line thatwill eventually linkdowntownSt. Paul to downtown Minneapolis.
But the top business organizations in the Metropolitan Twin Cities area are now firmly supportingexpansion of thelight rail as part of an interconnected multi-modal transportation system.
Executives fromthe three largest chambers of commerce told lawmakers Wednesday theyendorse building out the transit system,including theproposed 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."
Klingeltestified ata meeting of theHouse Transportation Committee, which is reviewing funding options in light of a newreport 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 existinginfrastructure 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 additionalone-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 suburbanareasis relieving congestion now handled by buses. She said that would free up some of the buses to providesuburb-to-suburb routes currently in demand.
Both Johnson and Klingel saidemployers have come to view the commuter buses andtransit lines are vital to maintaining a work force.
"Transit gets people to work," Klingel said.
"Eighty percent of the people who are currentlyon 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.