ST. PAUL, Minn. — When White House officials chose St. Paul's Union Depot for President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday of a $600 million competition for federal grants to fund infrastructure projects that create jobs, they picked a site that received nearly $125 million in federal funds for a major renovation in an earlier round of the program.
Union Depot went into decline in the early 1970s after the city's dwindling passenger train service was moved to a new depot in the Midway area between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"This project symbolizes what's possible," Obama said of the station's rebirth.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, said the station was in serious disrepair when she toured it shortly after being elected to Congress in 2000.
"It had been overrun by pigeons, windows were broken and shuttered, and the space was cold and largely abandoned, except for a few empty mail carts," McCollum said in a statement beforehand.
Obama pointed out that it's now becoming a regional transit hub that brings several modes of transportation under one roof. It's already being used by Metro Transit buses and some intercity bus companies, and it's poised to become busier later this year when a light-rail line connecting downtown St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis starts running and Amtrak service returns.
The project, which was in the works before Obama took office, has created more than 3,000 jobs since construction began in 2010, according to McCollum's office. The renovations were completed in December 2012.
Obama noted that the light-rail line that ends at Union Station is expected to cut the trip between the two downtowns in bad weather to just 30 minutes instead of the two-hour slogs that aren't uncommon when it snows heavily.
"I just had a chance to take a look at some of those spiffy new trains," he said. "They are nice. Big. They're energy-efficient. They're going to be reliable."
Obama couldn't resist the chance to joke about Minnesota's deep freeze. It's shaping up as the coldest winter in the Twin Cities since 1978-79. And he did it at the expense of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The temperature had crept up only to about 10 degrees with a wind chill of minus 8 at the airport when Obama, Foxx and their entourage disembarked from Air Force One.
"He turned to me and he said, 'This is the coldest I've ever been in my life!'" Obama said of Foxx. "And we were only out there for, like, a minute. Which goes to show how soft these folks from North Carolina are."
Obama said he has spent a lot of time with Minnesotans lately — because he was watching the Winter Olympics.
"Minnesota sent 19 athletes to the games," he said to loud cheers, adding, "They did us all proud."
And he singled out a community in far northwestern Minnesota where hockey is a way of life.
"Once again the tiny town of Warroad proved it's Hockey Town U.S.A.," he said, naming Warroad High School graduates T.J. Oshie and Gigi Marvin, who were stars on the U.S. men's and women's hockey teams, respectively. He paid tribute to Oshie for securing a shootout victory in the U.S. game against Russia.