During a couple of fits of frustration this year (he's had several) while attempting to mollify potential neighbors of the Central Corridor light-rail line, Peter Bell has pondered aloud the larger significance of its bumpy road to construction.
"Can we still build big things in this state?" the Metropolitan Council chairman asked. "If we had not already done so, could we build the interstate highway system today?"
Another time, he sighed: "Maybe the amount of checks and balances we have put into decisionmaking for infrastructure projects don't allow us to do big things anymore."
The most recent source of Bell's aggravation has been a dispute with the University of Minnesota. Corridor planners and university leaders have been oh-so-slow to come to an understanding about how best to keep vibration and electromagnetic interference from disrupting research in buildings on Washington Avenue, adjacent to the proposed rail line.
They're just about out of time if the project is going to stay on schedule and within budget. The $940 million project counts on receiving half of its funding from the federal government. Unless that money is in President Obama's 2010 budget, this railroad won't be running as scheduled in 2014. Obama's support likely hinges on securing a deal with the University of Minnesota early next month.
Word from last week's Central Corridor talks was encouraging. A new memorandum of understanding is finally in the works.
Far be it from this columnist to jinx a pending deal by rehashing points of prior dispute. (Besides, I'd have to turn this column over to my electrical-engineer husband to do the topic justice.) I'd rather root for the Central Corridor with Bell's bigger question in mind.
The next phase of light rail signifies more than a new way to get from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. It's also about demonstrating that Minnesotans still have big ideas for building this state, and can pull them off without getting tripped up by parochial interests or what's-in-it-for-me thinking. (And no, I don't consider the University of Minnesota a parochial interest.)
The Central Corridor is one segment -- a crucial one -- of a big transit plan (see map on page OP1) that's inspired by a big idea. It's that the Twin Cities should shore up its 21st-century economy by offering its increasingly numerous, increasingly aged residents means of mobility that don't involve driving a car.
Many people believe that owning and operating a car will become more expensive as policies to rein in atmospheric carbon emissions take hold and/or fossil fuels become harder to find and produce.
Granted, many other people think such worries are a lot of hooey.
But even climate-change and peak-oil skeptics have likely noticed that more of their fellow Minnesotans are looking gray and saggy these days. The best demographic forecasts (see www.tccompass.org) say the number of Twin Cities residents older than 65 will double between now and 2030. The number of younger adults will stay about where it is now.
Further: The average older woman in Minnesota can expect to outlive her ability or desire to drive by 10 years. For the average man, it's six years, according to Dawn Simonson, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging.
Keeping those elders mobile for as long as possible is not just a matter of convenience. It's also a matter of economics. The same goes for the other nondrivers in the region, most of whom are productive, taxpaying members of society.
Maximizing Minnesota's human capital and per-person productivity is going to be vital to this state's prosperity. In fact, it already is. And maximizing mobility by providing a variety of travel modes serves that good end.
If the Central Corridor's construction does not start in 2010, the obstacles the line faces will grow taller. Delay means higher costs -- $35 million a year or more -- while government money gets tighter.
Political hazards lie ahead, too. Several Republican candidates for governor say they don't want the Central Corridor or any other tax-funded rail line to proceed. Auto-based transportation is their priority.
Meanwhile, the Hiawatha Line keeps beating its preconstruction ridership estimates. And last week the new Northstar Line started showing another part of the metro area what's possible with rail.
And, to his credit, Bell -- whose Met Council job is a part-time position -- was working way more than full time last week to show that, despite transit decisionmaking rules that almost invite impediments, Minnesota can still build something big.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.
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