Gov. Tim Pawlenty's announcement that he has directed his transportation chief to head an intercity passenger rail forum and develop a statewide rail plan is just the latest indication of how much is at stake as the state prepares to compete for some of the $8 billion for high-speed and intercity rail made available by the recently passed stimulus bill.
Pawlenty's newfound aggressiveness on rail projects, including his assessment that the Northstar commuter line slated to open in November should go beyond Big Lake and extend to St. Cloud, is also reflective of the high speed at which the transportation debate has shifted in Minnesota.
Politically, the first major sign of the shift came with last year's override of Pawlenty's transportation bill veto. But perhaps the most important change in attitude has been among leaders of business community.
"I see the business community rapidly evolving," said Robert Johns, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, noting the role business leaders have played in the debate over potential rail projects.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat agrees. "The reason we have the transit revenues is the business community got involved."
Opat's colleague, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, detailed the multiple light-, commuter- and high-speed rail proposals to the City of Lakes Chamber of Commerce last week and explained "We're exploring public-private partnerships" to help fast track some of the rail projects.
And the competition is keener than ever between the proposed projects. "I see businesses and communities saying, 'When's our turn? When do we get in?'" said chamber President and CEO Todd Klingel. "Which is totally different from what we heard in the early '90s of 'The road to nowhere -- why would you ever do that?' to now 'When do we get ours?'"
The significant shift in how the business community perceives rail is appropriate, as the debate has often hijacked by those claiming that investing in infrastructure such as light-rail and commuter rail is antithetical to business. "If it's well thought out, it's completely the opposite," said Klingel. Indeed, often rail has been cast as anti-business, as opposed to a reliable, efficient way to get employees to work in order to maximize efficiency -- and profits.
"We're not typically for taxation, but we're for transit,'' said Doug King, director of the Minneapolis region of Merrill Lynch and chairman of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. And just as in business, the support is a data-driven decision. "Light-rail had a success most didn't expect," said King. And belying the short-term mentality many accuse the business leaders of, many are looking to the future. "Recessions end. We're looking at long-term viability," he said.
Even after helping create critical support for rail, the business community can play a larger role in supporting probusiness transit efforts. That includes convincing eager communities to practice patience as they jockey for spots in future rail projects.
"There may come a moment here where the business community needs to step forward and help us to calm the waters across the region," McLaughlin said during his presentation to business leaders. "This is a role the business community could play in a unique fashion."
Based on the leadership they've shown so far, local business leaders should be up to the task.