Pawlenty derails more economic development

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Largely overlooked amid all the protests over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of state funding for the Central Corridor light-rail line is his equally short-sighted obstruction of 11 other transit and regional rail projects that bear great promise for Minnesota’s economic future.

The Central LRT, linking the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns via University Avenue and the University of Minnesota’s main campus, may well be resurrected in final budget negotiations between the governor and legislators. After all, Pawlenty himself proposed $70 million in bonding to secure $450 million in federal funds for the project before he, in the apt phrase of Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, vetoed himself.

Unfortunately, bleaker prospects loom this year for the rest of Pawlenty’s transportation veto targets, which along with the Central comprised nearly 40 percent of his cuts. There probably won’t be prompt progress on bus or rail transit corridors to Maple Grove, Eden Prairie, Rosemount, Hastings, Hudson and Hinckley or on the east metro system’s hub, the St. Paul Union Depot.

Nor will Minnesota get on board anytime soon with another important 21st century mobility advance – high-speed regional passenger rail. Among Pawlenty’s vetoes were startup money for fast connections from the Twin Cities to Chicago, Duluth and Rochester and points in between.

These trains, which would travel at speeds up to 110 miles per hour, already have strong support from Minnesotans – 72 percent in a February poll by Minnesota 2020 – and for many good reasons:

* As airlines cut short-hop service, the network being planned by the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission would deliver riders from downtown St. Paul to downtown Chicago in 5-1/2 hours. That’s hours faster than by car or current Amtrak Empire Builder service and equal to air on a door-to-door basis, but safer, more affordable, convenient and comfortable. In contrast to Amtrak’s single train a day, there would be six fast round trips daily.

* The commission projects $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion in economic benefits from the project for Minnesota, thanks to shorter travel times, reduced pollution, 1,570 new permanent jobs and $31 million in extra annual household income. In addition, property values around train stations in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Red Wing and Winona would rise by $120 million to $180 million, the commission reported.

* Ridership on eight system routes radiating from Chicago that are already in operation increased by more than 40 percent from 2004 to 2007. The St. Paul-Chicago route is projected to be self-sustaining within two years of starting service.

* The planned Northshore Express would bring passengers eight times a day from the Minneapolis multimodal hub near the new Twins ballpark to Duluth in two hours, with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior. Projected economic benefits total $3 billion, including 500 construction jobs and 250 rail jobs among 14,000 new permanent jobs in Minnesota.

These projects would greatly enhance our travel options, although they’re nothing like the 200 m.p.h. trains that are already fueling economic resurgence in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and, next, even Argentina. The $5 billion price tag for a Midwest bullet-train system has scared off most public officials here, while Spain alone is investing 120 billion Euros in its superfast trains.

Here in Minnesota, we’re nowhere near even talking about that kind of money. Pawlenty’s regional rail vetoes totaled $6 million – less than the typical cost of building one mile of freeway.

As the rest of the Midwest moves forward on rail, we can’t afford to be left behind.

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