Transit investment is stalled in the Twin Cities. That’s an ominous sign for the metro area’s — and indeed the state’s — economic future.
Much of this is due to political factors that can be addressed only by adopting a rational approach to the issue. But that, unfortunately, is not what happened during the recently completed legislative session, which authorized no money for transit in the bonding bill.
In previous legislative sessions, near-universal Republican opposition to light rail was a key issue. But this year the priority was on buses, including a relatively modest bonding bill request of $50 million for bus rapid transit (BRT) — the mode many in the majority GOP caucus claim to favor. Denying the request is counterintuitive and counterproductive for a party that purports to support the Minnesota business community.
Transit and transportation are “really critical issues to our competitiveness and to our quality of life,” said Michael Langley, CEO of Greater MSP, the regional economic development partnership.
Multiple metro-area chambers of commerce joined municipal governments in writing resolutions of support for the D-Line, which would connect Brooklyn Center to Bloomington. It’s one of several BRT lines hoping to repeat the runaway success of the A Line, the region’s first BRT line, which exceeded ridership expectations by about 30 percent.
Transit isn’t liberal social engineering, as its detractors sometimes claim. Rather, it’s an efficient way to move workers to jobs, students to school and consumers to commerce. Every world-class city has a world-class transit system, something peer regions like Seattle, Denver and even Dallas in deep-red Texas acknowledge as they invest more rapidly than the Twin Cities.
In fact, despite robust population growth, the region’s ranking of access to jobs by transit has fallen for two straight years, according to Greater MSP. And the problem could amplify: Metro Transit and Metro Mobility face a combined $100 million projected operating deficit in the next biennium.
Twin Cities business leaders indicate that among their biggest challenges is workforce development. Overwhelmingly, the cohort of younger workers who will determine the region’s growth has indicated that transit options are critical. Not investing in them hurts recruiting and risks future growth.
As for light rail, while ridership on the Green and Blue lines has far surpassed projections, the planned Southwest and Bottineau lines face their own funding challenges. Southwest, the 14.5-mile line that would connect Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, is now slated to cost just over $2 billion, or $145 million more than the previous estimate. The overrun would have to be funded by Hennepin County taxpayers.
Other hurdles also remain, including lawsuits by a Minneapolis-based citizens group and by the railroad slated to share some of its tracks with the proposed line. Bottineau, the $1.5 billion, 13-mile Blue Line extension that would connect Brooklyn Park and downtown Minneapolis, is by design just a bit behind the Southwest approval process, but it, too, faces headwinds.
Hennepin County commissioners need to judiciously weigh the added costs. But like legislators, they need to realize that the metro area, and the state, will never realize its vast economic potential if it underfunds transit.