Vice President Joe Biden came to St. Paul on Thursday to praise the Union Depot as one of the success stories of the federal stimulus package.
Biden described the $35 million grant toward the depot’s renovation as an example of how federal spending on transit can spur economic growth.
“I’m here in Union Depot to show what private-public partnerships are all about, how they can stimulate investment,” Biden said.
His visit was part of a three-city tour to highlight the importance of the $800 billion stimulus program in lifting the country out of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression. While the impact of the program is still being debated, it will remain a part of President Obama’s legacy.
Biden told the crowd of 250 people that the Obama administration made “a lot of tough decisions” during the financial crisis. Seeking to boost his boss’ legacy in their final year in the White House, the vice president took a veiled shot at Republican leaders who have called the country’s economic health into question.
“We’ve gone from crisis to recovery, and I’m so tired of hearing everybody talking down America’s prospects,” Biden said.
Local officials credit the depot’s renovation three years ago with launching millions of dollars in private investment in the Lowertown district, though they say more time is needed to see the investment pay off. Some had hoped for more traffic at the station, which serves Amtrak and light-rail trains on the Green Line.
But Union Depot has become a “real estate anchor” that attracted development and condos that house millennials, Biden said during the 26-minute speech.
He described transportation investments as key to connecting people with work, especially as jobs sprawl into the suburbs.
“People want to live here, because they have options to get them to work and get them back home quickly and conveniently,” Biden said.
He suggested that public transit was all the more important given that a “significant number” of people in the Twin Cities and other areas lack cars.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Europe decided not to stimulate,” Biden said. “Where are they? Look where the rest of the world is.”
He drew applause when he added: “We’ve created more jobs in this country because of projects like this than every other industrial country in the world combined.”
Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey, meanwhile, said the reason for the vice president’s visit was purely political. Downey suggested that Biden, who announced recently that he would not run for president, wanted to keep a high profile in case Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign failed.
“But drawing attention to such a slow economic recovery and reminding workers, especially women and minorities, that their job and income prospects have stagnated is probably not going to help his chances, nor Mrs. Clinton’s for that matter,” Downey said in a statement.
The depot has hosted a string of prominent Democrats in recent years. Obama appeared there in 2014 for a similar promotion of the stimulus package, and U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Transportation Secretaries Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx also have paid visits.
A long line of Minnesota DFLers praised the Obama administration during introductions for Biden, including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, Gov. Mark Dayton, and Ramsey County Commissioners Rafael Ortega and Victoria Reinhardt.
Coleman opened the event by telling the audience that some question the government investment “on this magnificent building.” But the depot sat empty for many years, he said. The mayor attributed the greater private investment in St. Paul to the depot’s renovation.
Dayton was effusive in his remarks, saying the administration created “lasting, phenomenal legacies” like Union Depot.
The audience included Rosemary Zeno, who owns Royal Zeno Shoe Shine in the depot. She opened the shop in October and said she wanted to be a part of growth in the area. She and co-owner Monica Yarbrough said they are waiting for business to pick up as more people and businesses move into Lowertown.
To make that happen, the depot needs to add more trains, Yarbrough said, noting Biden’s comment that there used to be 300 of them passing through the depot during its peak years.
“We need 100 trains; we don’t need 300,” Yarbrough said.
Siyad Abdullahi, CEO of Pro-Heath Care, a small business based in Columbia Heights, said a lot of his employees are immigrants who rely on public transportation. Expansion of transit services at the depot is critical for serving people who are trying to get to work in the suburbs — and farther out, he said.
“This has to be a hub for intrastate travel,” Abdullahi said. Trains should not just extend to Chicago, but to Rochester, St. Cloud and elsewhere in Minnesota, he said.
As a veteran rail traveler, Biden was especially in his element. He told his audience that he has logged more than 2 million miles on Amtrak, commuting between Washington, D.C., and his home state of Delaware.
Before his speech, he boarded a Metro Transit hybrid bus, built in St. Cloud, that was parked at Union Station. He spoke with the driver, 26-year Metro Transit veteran William Byrd, and suggested taking the bus for a ride.
“I used to drive a bus,” Biden told the driver. “You think I’m joking, but I’m not.”
The director of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, Tim Mayasich, told Biden how the depot renovation project was immediately ready when the 2009 stimulus bill was passed.
Mayasich also talked of efforts by local and regional officials to get a second daily Amtrak trip between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
“There’s so much more we can do,” Biden said.