State must properly fund transportation system

The Southwest Light Rail project, if built, will be the state’s most costly public works project ever.
For around $1.4 billion, 15 miles of light rail track, tunnels, stations and bridges will be constructed across the southwest Twin Cities metropolitan area, from Minneapolis, through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka, ending in Eden Prairie.
Countless meetings, hearings and planning sessions have been held throughout the region during the past year. A key decision on this piece of track, an extension of the Green Line, is now only weeks away. Decision makers and residents are at odds over a small piece of the route in St. Louis Park. A committee of local mayors and Metropolitan Council officials is expected to make a recommendation next week to Met Council Chair Susan Haigh.
Once the route location is solidified, Haigh has the formidable task of convincing the state legislature to fund 10 percent of the project — $140 million. Metro counties will need to approve 40 percent of the cost — about $560 million. The Obama Administration has promised federal funding to cover the other half, if local and state ducks are in a row. Construction could start in 2015.
Commuters, shoppers, workers and tourists could be riding a completed Green Line by 2018, traveling from Eden Prairie, to downtown Minneapolis, to the University of Minnesota and onto downtown St. Paul.
Is it worth it? We believe it is.
But perhaps more importantly is recognizing that the Southwest Light Rail line is just one spoke in a master plan for transportation throughout the metropolitan center and Greater Minnesota. The Metropolitan Council, State Department of Transportation, counties and cities have been working together to plan for the future. Officials have been addressing infrastructure issues, bridge safety, highway maintenance, related issues and costs in planning toward the future.
Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle estimates it will cost $50 billion to maintain the state’s roads, bridges, airports and transit systems over the next 20 years. Current funding mechanisms will generate $18 billion. This does not include expansion of existing highways or building new highways. But it’s a critical and necessary investment to maintain the safe movement of products and people throughout Minnesota. Manufacturers like Larson Boats in Little Falls depend on the state’s roadways to transport boats to numerous destinations. The same can be said of Accent Ornamental Iron & Powder Coating of Cambridge, Elk River Machine Company, Sno Pac Foods in Caledonia and the tourist industry of Stillwater.
State planners and demographers are also looking at the future, expecting another 900,000 people in the Twin Cities by 2040. Half of that anticipated housing growth in the metro will be senior citizen housing.
Anyone who has ridden the subways in New York City or the Metro in Washington, D.C. understands how a light rail system can quickly move thousands of people through highly populated areas. A light rail system is expensive to build but will ease traffic on main thoroughfares in the cities and suburbs. Zelle called light rail a 100-year investment, which will also create new economic clusters of development along the route of the system.
We believe the Southwest Light Rail line is a vital spoke in the metro area’s future transportation system and should move ahead.
However, we also believe it is essential state legislature takes a deep look into transportation funding for the entire state in the coming legislative session. Serious consideration needs to be given to gas tax increases and a metro area transit sales tax surcharge. All options need to be on the table for an in-depth and bi-partisan analysis of our transportation needs and funding the necessary maintenance for the next several decades.
The challenge is huge: How can we properly fund our transportation system — and keep our roads and bridges safe for years to come? How can we be fair to Morrison County and to Houston County, while meeting the needs of a metropolitan area of four million people?
A statewide conversation on transportation needs for all 87 counties must be high on the agenda for the 2014 legislature. States with strong transportation systems will have a decided edge in the next half century, not just from an economic standpoint, but also as an aesthetic attraction. Minnesota must be a state that gets this right. And it all starts with a solid plan and proper funding.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board.

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