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Twin Cities Residents Want Transit: Let's Commit to Funding It

August 29, 2007 By Matt Clark, Transit for Livable Communities
In Minnesota, we take care of our communities, but we've been remarkably shortsighted on transportation.

The Twin Cities region has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. After World War II, the seven-county metropolitan area had around 1 million people. Today, the cities and suburbs have almost three times as many residents, and nearly a million more are expected to move here by 2030. That's another Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, Duluth, and Brooklyn Center squeezed onto our region's roads and transit network.

Our transportation system might have made sense when it was created in the 1950s, but it can no longer support our growing region. We must invest in a balanced transportation network that will sustain our region for the next century, and we must do it as soon as possible. The Twin Cities area can be a world-class economic powerhouse; we just need the vision and the courage to develop the transportation system to support it.

Simply put, investments in public transit mean economic development in both the core cities and the suburbs. The Hiawatha light rail line from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America has sparked business in a corridor that once had large tracts of vacant and underutilized land. Between 2000 and 2005, commercial and retail developments sprouted at both ends of the Hiawatha corridor. With ridership already exceeding estimates for 2020, the Hiawatha line now delivers expanded access to local entertainment venues - including Block E, Target Center, the Metrodome, the new Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum - in addition to several new corporate headquarters in downtown Minneapolis.

Public transit also creates new places to live. Since 2000, more than 5,400 new housing units have been built along the Hiawatha line, and another 7,000 are on the drawing board. Increasingly, people moving to the Twin Cities want the option to live along light rail and bus lines. According to a recent national survey from Reconnecting America, one quarter of all home buyers would like to live within a half-mile of a rail station. Neighborhoods flourish alongside transit lines; easy access to jobs, schools and grocery stores especially attracts the young "creative class," new immigrants and seniors.

The demand for this investment is strong - transit ridership was up by 6 percent in 2006, despite few increases in transit service. Park-and-ride lots are at or over capacity. Communities across the region are calling for expanded local bus service, train connections to Duluth and other large Midwestern cities and new rail transit lines in more corridors, including I-494, I-394, I-94 (east of St. Paul), and the Northeast Diagonal line (which would run across the new 35W bridge).
Local Chambers of Commerce have jumped on the train to champion proposed light rail lines such as the Southwest and Central Corridors. These business groups understand the direct link between improved transit and economic development.

Right now, our funding commitment for transit is insufficient and haphazard. We wouldn't dream of funding public education grade by grade, yet we finance our transportation system project by project. A half-cent regional sales tax, which was included in the transportation bill vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty this year, can support development of a transit system that will connect our communities and reduce congestion.

The Twin Cities deserves a regional transit system that can create jobs and new places to live, shaping a growing, vibrant region. Our Legislature and governor have an obligation to invest in a transportation system that will help our region prosper both today and tomorrow. The business and government leaders of other regions have made the investments necessary for their economic futures. If we don't want to be left "waiting at the station," we must demand the same commitment from our leaders here in Minnesota. 

Matt Clark is vice president at the Minneapolis division of a global investment bank. He is also treasurer and board member of Transit for Livable Communities.

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