I thank business profusely for being on the side of real, viable regional transit. For 15 years, transit has been one of the few issues that could transcend party polarization. Now we have relapsed, apparently. The take-no-prisoners battles of the 1980s and 1990s, which blocked appropriate and essential metro transit investments for decades, seem to have returned, courtesy of Speaker Kurt Daudt and his Minnesota House Republican caucus.

Lori Sturdevant, in her Aug. 20 column “Not even business support delivers light rail,” is exactly right. If big business believes what it says about the proposed Southwest light-rail line, then it needs to spend money to eject Republican obstructionists from positions of power in the Legislature. Support those politicians who recognize reality instead. Business needs to support independence for Metro Transit, so that state leaders with no concern for metro-area rights do not have a veto over metro-area necessities.

Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, and other peer cities and regions have regional transit agencies that don’t need state permission and money to pursue expansion. Minnesota, for all its progressive claims, remains a slave to exurban and outstate interests that could care less about the rights of metro-area workers and families to access jobs and services throughout the region. Perhaps it’s the big law firm partners in Kenilworth who are stoking Speaker Daudt’s radical veto of Southwest light rail. I don’t know. But what I do know is that the richest quadrant of the metro area, the southwest, remains off-limits to low-income, single-parent households who cannot afford the $9,000-a-year cost of a car to get a job they are qualified for in the southwest metro. Even if they could afford that first or second car, the gridlock in the west and southwest metro is approaching L.A.-style absurdity during peak hours — and sometimes during off-peak hours.

I spent a decade of my life advocating for the Green Line that now connects our two downtowns. I want to see Frogtown and Summit-University and St. Paul East Side families have fast, convenient access to the booming southwest. I want my region to grow up, after decades of parochialism, into the world-class city-state it is, with a world-class transit system.

That will not happen if business contents itself with platitudes about recruitment. Southwest light rail is not some bargaining chip we can afford to sacrifice to tax cuts and road projects. Like it or not, it is an existential issue for the Twin Cities area.

Sure, there have been parts of the process that could have been done better. But retrofitting a large metropolitan area with good transit is never easy after a century of highway supremacy. The old freight rails that could and should be the pathways to new, state-of-the-art rail transit now run through some neighborhoods of very pricey privilege. But those rights of way were acquired 30 years ago for one purpose: rail transit. We should do it.

Twin Cities residents spend at least $10 billion per year on cars alone. The $1.8 billion cost of Southwest light rail, a one-time investment good forever, is nothing compared with what we lavish on cars and roads in a single year.

It’s time for all of our leaders, including the CEOs who have already demonstrated their understanding of metro-area transportation needs, to keep the pressure on, telling those in the Legislature historically closest to them that this is not a discretionary issue. It is an existential necessity for the thousands of workers and families in the east metro (yes, EAST metro) who deserve the same job opportunities as those of us who can afford to sit in gridlock for our next meeting in the southwest metro.

If that doesn’t work, if Speaker Daudt — the former car salesman — and his Minnesota House caucus cannot see reality, then we need structural change. Metro Transit needs the power to be Metro Transit, without a state chain — a state veto — around its neck.

 

Mathews Hollinshead, of St. Paul, founded the Midway Transportation Management Organization, which later merged with St. Paul Smart Trips.