Like many policy arguments, the one about transit has often been miscast. The issue isn't "social engineering," but business growth, and how this region can survive, let alone thrive, against competitive peer regions that are increasingly ahead of the Twin Cities in investing in multi-modal transit.

A recently released Itasca Project study makes the point. Viewed through green eyeshades, it concludes that if the Metropolitan Council's 2030 transportation plan is implemented, the return on investment will be robust. And if the build-out is sped up by seven years and there's more focused, private-sector growth near planned transit stations, the returns are even better.

The study was commissioned by the Itasca Project, the state's business-led civic alliance, and completed by transportation economics experts at Cambridge Systematics. It was guided by a local technical advisory committee.

The researchers looked at three transit scenarios.

The first assumed completion of the 2030 plan, which consists of adding three new light-rail transit lines, four completed bus-rapid transit (BRT) corridors, and nine arterial BRTs. This plan -- encompassing capital, operating and maintenance costs -- would require an overall investment of nearly $4.4 billion.

The study estimates the total direct impact between 2030 and 2045 to be $6.6 billion to $10.1 billion. (Direct impacts included vehicle operating cost savings, travel time savings, shipper and logistics cost savings, emission reductions, safety benefits, and pavement maintenance savings. Not included, but still very significant, are more than 30,000 full-time jobs created during the construction period.)

The second scenario speeds up the build-out by seven years. It would be more expensive, $5.3 billion, because operating and maintenance costs would begin sooner. But it would increase the return on investment to between $10.8 billion to $16.5 billion. And if a greater proportion of already anticipated private-sector growth occurred around transit stations, as it has in other markets, the net benefits would jump by another $2 billion to $4 billion.

This transit investment must be accompanied by increased funding for highways and roads. But because they are already clogged, increased transit must be part of the solution, which benefits not just transit riders but individual drivers, too. It also helps employers, who need efficient and dependable methods for their workers.

While the Great Recession has brought appropriate focus to joblessness, demographic trends indicate that the future challenge will be a worker shortage. This is particularly true of highly mobile millennials, the young workers who indicate more interest in transit than their older cohorts.

"When I was growing up, freedom meant having a car. Today freedom for many 19- to 35-year-olds is a smartphone, a wireless hub, and a laptop, and they would prefer to be on a transit vehicle and not driving," said Jay Cowles, president of Unity Avenue Associates and co-chair of the Itasca Project's Transportation Initiative.

The Legislature's focus will appropriately be on closing the state's $1.1 billion budget gap. But it's also time to make savvy investments in transit that will benefit this and future generations. Elected officials should read the Itasca study and heed the three major metro-area chambers of commerce, which are actively advocating for pro-business transit investment.